Year One Impact for the New Orleans Saints Draft

Some NFL teams draft players looking for long term value, while others look for immediate impact players to capitalize on a championship window. But evaluators can approach team’s draft classes from either perspective. In this article, Dave Archibald focuses on immediate impact of the New Orleans Saints Draft class for 2016. 

The New Orleans Saints entered the 2016 offseason with plenty of needs after a second consecutive 7-9 season. After a fruitful free agency period netted them tight end Coby Fleener, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, and linebacker James Laurinaitis, they turned to the draft to fill their remaining holes and plan for the future. They selected only five players, but they figure to play roles for New Orleans in 2016.

Immediate Role Player

Sheldon Rankins, Defensive Tackle from Louisville, first-round pick (#12)

No team allowed more points than the Saints defense in 2015, so it’s no surprise they turned to that side of the ball with their first selection. Rankins was a big-time producer for Louisville, racking up 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons. He’ll help immediately as a situational player even if he takes longer to wrest a full-time job from Fairley.

At 6’1”, 299 pounds, Rankins is undersized for a defensive tackle, projecting best as a 3 technique in a conventional 4-3 Over defense. That would be a departure from the 3-4 schemes favored by former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The team ran a combination of fronts last season under Ryan and Dennis Allen, who took over as interim DC after Ryan’s firing in November, but it appears Allen is putting his stamp on the New Orleans defense in his first full season on the job.

Michael Thomas, Wide Receiver from Ohio State, second-round pick (#47)

Scouting profile by Joseph Ferraiola

Brandin Cooks, a first-round pick in 2014, broke out with 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns and surprise performer Willie Snead added 984 yards, but the team grabbed Thomas in the second round to bolster this already promising receiving core. Cooks brings speed and quickness and Snead route-running savvy, but they stand 5’10” and 5’11”, respectively. At 6’3”, Thomas brings size to the group,  which is much-needed after the team parted with 6’4” mainstay Marques Colston. While Colston frequently lined up in the slot, Thomas projects long-term as more of a classic X receiver. He has work to do improving his release from press coverage and expanding his route tree, but Saints head coach Sean Payton is undoubtedly already designing packages that make use of Thomas’s gifts.

Good Depth

Vonn Bell, Safety from Ohio State, second-round pick (#61)

Safety was one of the few positions that looked solid on the New Orleans defense, between big-ticket free agent Jairus Byrd and 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, but the team dealt third- and fourth- round picks to move up and nab Thomas’s teammate late in the second round. Bell has a versatile skill set that will let the team move Vaccaro to the slot or a linebacker-type role in dime packages. Bell does enough things well that he can fill in at either safety spot in case of injury, or ultimately replace either veteran if the team elects to move on down the road.

Projects

David Onyemata, Defensive Tackle from Manitoba, fourth-round pick (#120)

Onyemata is the definition of a project – the native Nigerian had never even seen a football five years ago, and the University of Manitoba in Canada isn’t exactly a football powerhouse. He has rare movement skills for a 300-pounder – the 7.25 3-cone time he ran at his Pro Day would have led all tackles at the NFL Combine – but his 2016 impact will be limited because of how raw he is as prospect.

Daniel Lasco, Running Back from California, seventh-round pick (#237)

Like Onyemata, Lasco is a player with terrific measurables but some rough edges that need polish. His 4.46 40 time finished fourth among running backs, and he posted the best mark for his positional cohorts in both the vertical and broad jumps. While Lasco produced at times for the Golden Bears – particularly his junior year in 2014, when he ran for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns – his early-career contributions in the NFL will likely come on kickoff and punt coverage.

The Picks That Weren’t

The Saints entered the draft down a sixth-round pick thanks to trading up to select Damian Swann in 2015, and gave up a third and fourth-rounder in the move for Bell. To move up into the fourth to select Onyemata, they traded a 2017 pick, leaving them down a pick already for next year’s draft.

With fewer picks, the Saints weren’t able to address all the needs on their roster. Guard, edge rusher and cornerback remain question marks entering the summer. That might thrust many of their second-year players into larger roles. First-round pick Andrus Peat might slot in at guard, or push veteran right tackle Zach Strief to the interior. Second-rounder Hau’oli Kikaha, fifth-rounder Davis Tull, and undrafted free agent Bobby Richardson will likely compete for the defensive end spot across from Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan. Cornerbacks P.J. Williams (third round) and Damian Swann (fifth round) return from injury and could play bigger roles in the secondary.

With so few picks, the Saints were very active in the undrafted free agent pool and netted a handful of players who can compete for offensive line spots. Landon Turner from North Carolina and Jack Allen from Michigan State could make up for not spending a pick on an interior lineman.

Dan Hatman contributed to this piece. Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman.

Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, or his scouting profile of analysis of the Josh Norman situation and the hidden game of Super Bowl 50.

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