The 2013 NFL Draft represented a big change for the New Orleans Saints as well as a reminder of something they were ready to forget. This is the first big event that signifies the return of Sean Payton and being ready to help the team return to its playoff form and compete for another Super Bowl. This draft also served to be a reminder of Bountygate as signified by not having a second round pick, taken away as a penalty for their transgression. The Saints had also made a big change with their defensive, moving on from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as well as the 4-3 scheme entirely after setting records for futility. They brought in Rob Ryan to run a new 3-4 scheme and were immediately presented with the challenge of drafting players to fit that defense. This represented the largest challenge for general manager Micky Loomis in this draft and his approach with fewer picks was an interesting one, but it does come with a certain level of risk.
With the fifteenth pick in the draft, the Saints selected Kenny Vaccaro, safety from Texas. Coming into the draft, the one area of the defense that looked pretty good for the Saints was their secondary. Jabari Greer and newly signed Keenan Lewis presumably playing on the outside with Patrick Robinson likely in the slot make a decent set up at corner. Malcolm Jenkins is good at what he does at free safety, which is coverage and being able to play like an extra corner on the field; his tackling leaves something to be desired. The Saints had an opening to add a good strong safety in the mix and Vaccaro brings a of couple abilities that make him a good fit in this new defense. Vaccaro is the prototype at strong safety, so he can play in the box or deep and come downhill to attack the run. He is a good tackler for the most part, but will occasionally do his share of bad lunging to attempt tackles. But what makes Vaccaro so useful to what the Saints want to do is the fact he can play man coverage against a slot receiver or against a tight end.
Rob Ryan will sell out with Cover-0 blitzes; no one protecting over the top and everyone in man coverage while he sends six or seven defenders to stop the run or get after the quarterback in an attempt to make a big play. The result is the defense needs to have four or five guys that can play in man coverage. With Jenkins and Vaccaro as their safeties, the Saints have the players to do it, so while this defense will be feast or famine, the Saints are well equipped to protect themselves for giving up big plays. Vaccaro is not as comfortable playing in space and needs to improve in zone, but he can do it and should improve with experience, giving them a lot of options with their coverages. Ryan is not quite as nuanced as his brother Rex in how he runs his defense. There is a lot more of an all or nothing feel with what he likes to do, but the Saints appear to have the players in the secondary to avoid disaster. Conceivably, this defense could be a good idea if the offense can get back to putting up the points it had become accustomed before Sean Payton was suspended. The NFL, with how it is changing the rules, is actually making it more rewarding for teams to make a big risk in order to cause turnovers as good, consistent defense is harder to play. It will be interesting to see how this defense ultimately comes together after the scheme switch, but the secondary at least appears to be equipped for the move.
In the third round, the Saints grabbed offensive tackle Terron Armstead from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the reigning SWAC Champs. So many players end up going to colleges in the SWAC or similar conferences because something went wrong at the Division-1 level, but in Armstead’s case, he chose Arkansas-Pine Bluff because they would let him participate in track as well as football, where he was extremely successful in the shot put. He was also a good football player as a three time All-SWAC player, but what made him stand out to the NFL Draft community was his incredible athleticism. After showing well at the East-West Shrine Game and being invited to the Senior Bowl as an injury replacement, Armstead had arguably as impressive a performance at the Scouting Combine as any player that participated. From his incredible performance on the track (as useless as it may be for an offensive lineman) to his performance in agility and strength tests, Armstead made the most of his time there and made him a household name to scouts and fans of the draft.
This move is intriguing because the Saints have a left tackle in Charles Brown, the former fourth round pick that had been developing behind Jermon Bushrod, who was allowed to walk in free agency due to getting more money than they could pay him; he is now a Chicago Bear. Brown will have his shot to prove he can hold down the position and Armstead comes in as the swing tackle while he develops, improves his technique, and adjusts to the competition in the NFL. If Brown can prove to keep the job beyond this year, Armstead will compete for the right tackle job with Zach Strief. With arguably the best set of guards in the league with Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, the Saints have reliable players they can count on inside which enables them to take a small amount of risk on the outside with the athletic Brown and eventually Armstead. With guards of that caliber, it makes playing tackle a little easier because they know they can count on the guy next to them to do his job and allow them to focus on taking away the outside. While fans may not be overly thrilled with who they have protecting the flanks for Drew Brees, their guards will make it easier for them to look good; which some have argued worked to artificially inflate the stock of Bushrod.
After trading running back Chris Ivory to the New York Jets for a fourth round pick, the Saints packaged that pick and their original fourth round pick to move back into the third round to select John Jenkins, nose tackle out of Georgia. When the Saints made the move to a 3-4, they did not have a guy who fit the bill to play in the middle of their odd man front. Jenkins is an enormous human being that has remarkable athleticism and can collapse the pocket. The problem with Jenkins that hurt him in the draft process was his senior year, both on tape and in the classroom. Jenkins let his weight get out of control, something that could be an ongoing issue throughout his career, he ballooned up, and the results were noticeable. He just did not play as effectively as he did his junior year when he was in better shape. The most noticeable difference was with his balance. Jenkins would not be able to generate as much power and momentum because he was slower, get stood up, and then toppled over. He also was ruled ineligible academically and was unable to participate in Georgia’s bowl game, which obviously hurt his team.
If he can keep his weight down and get down to around 335-340lbs, he could be a better player, improve his balance as well as stamina and be more effective, which is important because the Saints are basically going to need him to come in and play a significant amount of snaps and likely start. More than likely, he will only be 2-down player to stop the run before coming out in favor of more athleticism and probably more even fronts to rush the passer. With his weight under control and further development as a player, Jenkins could end up having a better pro career than he did in college. If not, he could ultimately eat himself out of the league and be more along the lines of Terrance Cody, who was an equally enormous nose who came out of Alabama and has had trouble making an impact for the Ravens. There is going to be a significant amount of pressure on Jenkins to come in and perform, but he has the ability to do it and as a result, could be as important a third round pick as any in the NFL this coming year.
And speaking of Baltimore, after the Saints took Jenkins, the Ravens took another nose tackle possibility in Brandon Williams out of Missouri Southern, twelve picks later. Williams was impressive during the Senior Bowl, although Jenkins was in better shape and reminded people what he could be in better shape as he was in Mobile. Williams had a good week in Mobile but has some issues to improve upon in his own right, but he has stayed in better shape and has a slightly better motor, so these two will likely be compared and if Williams shines while Jenkins struggles, this could be revisited down the road. Jenkins is more in the style that Rob Ryan used in Cleveland, when he had Shaun Rogers, another bear of man who could show off impressive feats of athleticism for a 350lber, but had some consistency issues. In the end, the Saints attacked a huge need for the price of an expendable running back and a fourth round pick, which is difficult to argue, but it will be interesting to see if Jenkins can provide what the Saints need.
In the fifth round, the Saints picked up Kenny Stills, wide receiver from Oklahoma. With the offensive system that the Saints have been using under Sean Payton, they have really done a good job of identifying the type of receiver they like to bring in with a pretty good level of success. They have actually had a better track record selecting guys late or not at all than they have the first round. For instance, they found Marques Colston in the seventh round out of Hofstra and Lance Moore was an undrafted free agent from Toledo the Saints actually grabbed after he had an uneventful stint in Cleveland; those are the Saints top two receivers now. The rest of the group of other receivers that were late round selections or undrafted free agents as well and Stills fits that mold. On the other hand, the Saints used first round picks on Robert Meachem in the first round Devery Henderson in the second with mediocre returns and neither is still on the team.
The Saints are not overly concerned with size or speed and while they are not going to be upset if guys bring either, they are more interested in getting players that can get open, catch the football, and make plays in space. They spread out the field with three and four receiver sets and let Brees find the open option and get them the ball. Brees does not really play favorites; if a guy can get open, Brees will get him the ball. That is how Colston and Moore have earned their spots in the Saints organization and what a player like Stills can give them.
Stills was a relatively highly ranked receiver earlier in his career based on his production in the Sooners offense as well as the fact he started and made an instant impact as a true freshman. He has never been the biggest or the strongest, but he has always been a guy who got open for his quarterback, Landry Jones, and just kept making plays. This is a good fit and should be a relatively easy transition for Stills coming out of the Sooners air raid system as well as having some frustration as he expected to go earlier in the draft. It is only a fifth round pick for what could be a really good player for them while he may not be a great player for a number of other systems. If Stills really produces well, there will probably be discussion about how so many teams missed on him, but he probably would not have the same impact as he will in this system, which is why he was available here and the Saints were smart to be patient and let him slide to them here.
With their sixth round pick and the final pick of their draft, the Saints went to the Lone Star Conference and selected Rufus Johnson, defensive end from Tarleton State. Johnson moves to outside linebacker but could end up with his hand on the ground in certain pass rushing situations if he can find his way into the rotation. His straight line speed is average but his quickness and ability to change of direction, more important to his position, are solid. He has a nice combination of size and speed and will likely be asked to drop some weight. Measuring in for the draft at 266lbs, it would not be surprising at all to see them slim down to get down to 255 or somewhere close to it, which could have further benefit on his agility and quickness.
The Saints have a decent pile of linebackers, defensive ends, and linemen that need to be categorized as to how they fit into this 3-4 system. A player like Martez Wilson could end up playing inside or outside linebacker in this new scheme. They have this clump of Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and Jonathan Vilma who project better to play inside. Vilma could ultimately end up being released as he has been a better fit in the 4-3 than he has the 3-4 in addition to the fact that they paid a decent amount of money to bring in Lofton and Hawthroen. A guy like Junior Galette could ultimately end up starting when all is said and done as one of their outside rushers. Johnson has a defined role and they know what they want to do with him, so adding him into the mix could be good as they continue making this transition between schemes. As a result, he might have a slight advantage when it comes to trying to make the roster and finding time in the rotation as he hops over guys who prove not to be great fits in the scheme or are deemed ineffective. It is also possible that he ends up on the practice squad, but it seems like enough guys will be let go that he will be retained and get a chance to contribute this year, both as a rusher and on special teams.
My Thoughts: With the move to the 3-4, the Saints put a lot of pressure on themselves in this draft, which was a little surprising given the talent they had as well as the fact they were without the second round pick. To Loomis’s credit, he did address the needs as well as finding some talent that fit their scheme that could pay off now and in the long run, so it appears to have been a productive day at the office.
Considering what they needed in their secondary and what this defense is going to want to do under Ryan, the pick of Vaccaro made a great deal of sense. The Saints have a presence that can help them stop the run more effectively, but also now have an entire secondary filled with players that contribute in man coverage. For a team that wants to blitz as much as Ryan likes, this was a smart move and really makes it easier for him to operate without as much risk of giving up the big play.
The risk in this draft was the move to grab Jenkins as he has a significant amount of pressure to deliver as a rookie. The Saints really do not have another true nose at this point. In fact, the projected guy to play nose before the draft occurred was Akiem Hicks, who kicks out to his more natural spot at end. So much depends on Jenkins’ weight and he can be the guy they need, but if he struggles or gets hurt, the Saints are in trouble.
I like the pick of Armstead because of the situation they have at guard and the fact that having Brown will enable Armstead to focus on developing for a year. Armstead’s physical potential is remarkable and his ceiling nearly limitless, so if they take their time and get him ready, the result could be a huge benefit for the team. If Brown can handle himself, the Saints could end up with an athletic set of bookends that can comfortably protect Brees. Having a swing tackle for a year which is what Brown was last year, is certainly not a bad situation either.
I love the fit Stills has in this offense and do not think he could have gone to a better situation for what he does well. Get open and catch the ball. Stills can do that and Brees is as good as there is in trusting his weapons and just throwing to the open man. Brees and Aaron Rodgers really excel at this and it makes them difficult to predict and allows guys to make plays and having a different receiver potentially be the man in any given game. They can take advantage of matchups and weaknesses in the defense and pick them apart. It may only be a fifth round pick, but it could be a perfect match.
It is not surprising to see the Saints grab a hybrid pass rusher because when they get this roster cut down to fit their new scheme, Johnson may find himself earlier in the rotation than he expected. In Johnson, they have a developmental pass rusher that can develop in their system and potentially contribute as a rookie. He will have to adjust to the NFL talent and adjust to learning outside linebacker, but the Saints roster could provide him plenty of opportunities to thrive.
The Saints had a number of areas to address with their team but Loomis did a solid job of making some good value picks and adding guys that fit what they do and what they want to do, which is critical with attacking the draft. They did not end up with an eye-popping draft in terms of names aside from Vaccaro, but they appear to have ended up with a group of players that make sense for their team and their future. They only got five players, but they could have a huge impact immediately and maybe no one more than Jenkins, which is why it could be the most scrutinized pick they made. If he comes out and plays well as a rookie and does the job, this draft will be heralded as a success. If not, this draft will be scrutinized, potentially unfairly because Jenkins is only one player and a third round pick, but he is almost all they have at nose. If he struggles, nose tackle is their #1 need going into the 2014 draft and even if he does well, they should add depth there.
Topics: 2013 Nfl Draft, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Brandon Williams, Chris Ivory, Georgia Bulldogs Football, John Jenkins, Kenny Stills, Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Oklahoma Sooners Football, Rufus Johnson, Tarleton State, Terron Armstead, Texas Longhorns Football