One of my favorite days on the sports calendar is the first round of the NFL draft.
Today marks the beginning of process where team scouting departments prove their value to their organizations and where struggling teams either secure the cornerstone for their franchise’s return to greatness (Cleveland and Detroit excepted) or waste millions of dollars via signing bonus on a player who excelled on the college level but busted in the pros.
Drafting a player in the first round is as much a crapshoot as it is an investment.
The NFL Draft has become a major media event over the years, with the league turning what was once a weekend affair into a 72-hour sports drama with the first two days being conducted before millions of fans on prime time television.
Best Player Available v. Addressing Specific Needs v. Retention Probability
One of the biggest arguments about the draft has to do with the question of whether teams should choose the best player available versus addressing a hole on the roster with the best player available at that position.
Building (and maintaining) a team doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
In the back of every general manager’s mind is free agency. A great player on a roster today might end up being a great player on some other team next season. Also there’s the matter of durability.
Popular yet oft-injured tight end Jeremy Shockey’s days on the Saints’ roster were numbered when Saints general manager Mickey Loomis managed to score the U’s Jimmy Graham in the third round. The Saints made it official when they cut after a few seasons the very player Loomis and head coach Sean Payton had so aggressively pursued and bought off the New York Giants’ roster for the princely sum of second and fifth round picks.
What the Saints Need
In 2009 the Saints swaggered into the playoffs with the best record in their conference; in 2010 they hobbled into post-season play and humbled out courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks. The Saints ended their bid for a Two Dat with their entire pre-season running back corps on crutches and it showed in the stats. After enjoying unparalleled success with a balanced offense in 2009, the Saints finished with one of the weakest running games in the NFL in 2010
Though the front-office finally came to terms with Pierre Thomas with a longterm deal and a renegotiated contract with Reggie Bush is likely, the Black and Gold might make a move to provide more depth for their running game. A second or third round pick for a mid-level running back is probably in order.
The other major deficiency with the 2010 Saints was their lack of an effective pass rush. The Saints made a big move signing defensive tackle Shaun Rogers prior to the lockout though there are concerns at defensive end as Will Smith isn’t getting any younger or more consistent in racking up sacks.
The linebacker corps has been a point of concern for most of the Sean Payton era. Nobody will ever confuse them for the Dome Patrol and little has been done to shore it up. One of the big surprises in last year’s draft was the Saints decision to not use one of their selections on a linebacker.
Another point of concern is free safety. While Malcolm Jenkins has stepped up and established himself at the position, veteran Darren Sharper’s role with the team is still up in the air. What if Jenkins goes down with an injury, as he did in the regular season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Usama Young is not the answer.
Draft expert Mike Detillier has also beat the drum for the Saints to pursue a high-caliber kick/punt returner in the draft, bearing in mind that Courtney Roby, who has handled kick returns, will be a free agent.
To Trade or Not to Trade
The Saints don’t have a lot of trade bait if they wanted to leap ahead of their 24th slot, though arguments have been made for both jumping and dropping back.
Quality players will still be available when the Saints pick and there might be no point in using a 1st round selection on a player that may very will be around in the 2nd round. It’s like paying $100,000 for a house today when you can spend $75,000 on it tomorrow.
And with no picks in the 4th, 5th and 6th rounds, the Saints might want to diversify their options in the 2011 draft. I could easily picture the Saints giving up their late 3rd round pick for two picks further down but in the first half of those rounds.
I suspect a trade down is more likely than a trade up, but one rarely knows what lurks in the complicated mind of Mickey Loomis.
First Round Options: Best Available
If the following players (listed in order of preference) are available come the 24th pick, the Saints should make a selection and not a deal.
Mark Ingram Running Back I’d be shocked if the best half-back available in the 2011 Draft fell down this far, but if the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner is still on the board when the Saints pick, their front office would be fools to not grab him. As I mentioned earlier, the Saints’ ground game needs help and I believe the ex-Alabama running back can inject some nitro into the Black and Gold’s high-powered offense. Furthermore, selecting Ingram would make Bush either expendable or less expensive in the event the team wanted to retain his services. That said, I don’t see how Ingram would get past the Miami Dolphins, who have the 15th overall pick.
Cameron Jordan, Aldon Smith, JJ Watt or Ryan Kerrigan Defensive End The acquisition of one of these players would address a major need for the Saints, who need to develop a pass rush if they want to once again hoist the Lombardi Trophy outside the practice facility.
Akeem Ayers Outside Linebacker Ayers would be a major addition to the Saints often battered linebacker corps. While middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is an outstanding player, there are questions on his flanks. Jonathan Cassillas was supposed to start on the weak side but was lost for the season after injuring his foot in an exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans (at least he didn’t get run over by their mascot). Veteran linebacker Scott Shanle is a free agent and his status with the team is unknown. Regardless of Shanle’s future with the Saints, the team is going to need to make some upgrades at outside linebacker with an eye on the future.
If other teams have scooped up the aforementioned, it might be a good idea for Loomis to spend some time on the phone with teams looking for a second first round pick, either trading for their later picks in 2011 or their first round selection next year.
It’s unlikely franchises that picked early will be picking late in the 2012 Draft so a first round swap might end up laying a strong foundation for the team’s future.
So What’s Likely to Happen
I’m going to assume Loomis will be uncharacteristically conservative in the 2011 Draft and will not make as many deals as has in the past. Bear in mind I was totally off in last year’s predictions, only getting the 7th round selection of a revolving door quarterback right.
Round 1 (24th) Muhammad Wilkerson DT Temple
Round 2 (56th) Brooks Reed OLB Arizona
Round 3 (72nd) Jabaal Sheard DE Pittsburgh
Round 3 (88th) Shane Vereen HB California
Round 7 (226th) Richard Gordon TE Miami
Round 7 (243rd) Best available kick-punter returner
What Should Happen
Round 1 (24th) Ryan Kerrigan DE Purdue
Round 2 (56th) Brooks Reed OLB Arizona
Round 3 (72nd) Lawrence Guy DT Arizona State
Round 3 (88th) Mark LeGree FS Appalachian State
Round 7 (226th) Leon Berry WR/KR Mississippi State
Round 7 (243rd) Richard Murphy RB LSU