Sunday, May 1, 2011

Grading the Saints' 2011 Draft Picks

No risk. No reward.

The New Orleans Saints’ front office proved to the league they could be every bit as daring as the Atlanta’s “trade the house for Julio” team executives but came out with far greater value in the end.

Value being a key word to describe this draft since Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis stretched his organization’s six draft picks to the limit and came out with three potential starters, two reserves likely to make the roster and a “casino chip” from Pitt that might pay out big dividends in 2012.

Those six picks helped address three of the team’s biggest concerns: the lack of quarterback pressure and sacks; relatively poor special teams coverage; and a once formidable running game that devolved into a shell of their Super Bowl champion self that quickly hobbled the team out of the playoffs last season.

To be sure, this draft was conducted with an eye on a potentially catastrophic free agency situation, as the team could have as many as 28 players departing in the event the players’ score a major negotiation or court victory that allows all personnel not under contract to walk.

How many players on the roster are wondering whether their spot was filled in the draft and are already mentally moving on?

Running back Reggie Bush has been the most conspicuous of this group, particularly after his post-Mark Ingram “moment of resignation” tweet in which he said “It’s been fun New Orleans.”

Both Loomis and Saints Head Coach Sean Payton have publicly declared their desire to see #25 remain with the team, though at significantly reduced pay. Considering the astronomical money Bush has made on the front end and modest stats he’s produced on the field during his injury-riddled time with the team, Bush should be willing to give his time and patience further with a team that has invested so many millions in him.

But that’s assuming Reggie wants to be reasonable.

More on this later as the story grindingly drags out to its inevitable conclusion.

It’s hard to imagine a time when a team’s second pick of the draft so overshadowed the first selection. I never thought Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan would still be on the board when the Saints selected, settling for Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan as the likely optimal pick up.

Ironically Washington Redskins with the 16th selection picked Kerrigan, six slots ahead of the Saints’ pick.

Though Jordan was not a “sexy” pick, the Saints got outstanding value by snagging one of the top three ends of the draft late into the first round. The Saints need to establish a pass rush and Jordan can help with quarterback pressure. Also with defensive end Will Smith probably missing the first four regular games of the season, Jordan will have a chance to step up when the team needs him most.

Ingram’s board longevity was another surprise. I rated the Alabama running back as the player the Saints needed to target first because of the Black and Gold’s lackluster running game (28th in rushing yards in 2010) and how Ingram could be the bulldozer the Saints offense needs to pick up the short-yard first downs. Between Brees and his receivers and Ingram in the backfield, opposing defenses will be vexed in goal line and other short yard situations.

After passing over the linebacker position in the 2010 NFL Draft (to my utter consternation), the Saints grabbed two teammates form the University of Illinois, picking up Martez Wilson in the third round and Nate Bussey with their compensation pick in the seventh round. Wilson was one of the highest rated linebackers in the draft and he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any linebacker at the combine. Payton has made no secret about Wilson getting a shot to contribute early on the strong side.

It should be noted that starting linebacker Scott Shanle is an unrestricted free agent and reserve linebacker Marvin Mitchell is also a free agent. It could be inferred that the Wilson and Bussey additions by the Saints could spell the end of Shanle and Mitchell’s time in a Black and Gold uniform. At a minimum, the team has some serious leverage in the event the team is interested in retaining their services.

The dapper Bussey, who wore a tie to class every day starting with his sophomore year in high school, is expected to get his break in special teams, an area where Mitchell saw a lot of action.

Though the Saints’ kick and punt return coverage did not surrender a single touchdown in the 2010 regular season, they paled in comparison to other teams’ units. The Saints’ kick off coverage ranked 24th in the NFL, giving up an average of 24.1 yards per return. The Saints struggled more covering punt returns, ranking 28th in the league with an average of 11.9 yards allowed on punt returns.

Payton and Loomis’s comprehensive draft solutions to addressing the team’s outstanding issues from last season is commendable. If the offensive line can return to their 2009 selves, the Saints should be in contention to score a Two Dat in Indianapolis.

Finally, a few words about Pittsburgh defensive end Greg Romeus, whom the Saints grabbed with their first pick in the seventh round. Though he’s unlikely to make an immediate impact as he continues his recovery from a torn ACL, Romeus could end up being another “Marques Colston seventh round find” come 2012. While the Saints were in the midst of their Lombardi Trophy run, Romeus was tearing it up as a junior in the Big East making eight sacks and 43 tackles and forcing three fumbles. Instead of cashing in, Romeus stayed at Pitt and experienced one of the worst years imaginable for any college athlete . Romeus suffered from back spasms that limited his early participation and then endured the loss of his mother to cancer before tearing his ACL.

One has wonder how many juniors who had productive seasons think of scenarios like what Romeus endured and decided to pursue decent money now rather than risk it all with an extra year on the collegiate gridiron.

Had Romeus left as a junior, there’s little doubt he would have been picked in one of the first three rounds and would have walked off with a much more lucrative contract than he will receive in 2011. Knowing the Saints organization’s emphasis on character and their awareness of his potential, it’s safe to say Romeus will be afforded every opportunity to regain the lost glory and big money potential by proving his worth.

On paper the Saints front office gets an A for their 2011 draft picks. We'll see later how those picks actually pan out.

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