The New Orleans Saints came into the 2014 NFL Draft with some obvious needs. Most of them were on the defensive side of the ball as the team continues their conversion to a 3-4 scheme under Rob Ryan. While the team has made some big moves both in previous drafts and free agency to give themselves some building blocks, they still had a number of areas that needed to be addressed, but they made one of the best fit picks in the entire draft in the first round. The issue with Saints draft is that it is largely for 2015 and beyond and may not provide much immediate help.
Perhaps because of the needs on the defense, a pick that should have been obvious in terms of fit was missed by most everyone. The Saints gave Drew Brees another talented receiving threat that fits exactly what that team wants to do on offense in Brandin Cooks. Cooks was an extremely effective quick twitch receiver that knew how to get open and could make yards after the catch that was ideally suited to play in space.
Last year, the Saints made another great fit pick with Kenny Stills who came in and was third on the team in receiving yards. Cooks has a lot of similarities to Stills. Both are extremely quick and able to create opportunities after the catch. Stills is a little bigger while Cooks is a little quicker.
My biggest concern with Cooks is how Oregon State was that their offense did quite a bit to make sure he had space in front of him, avoiding being pressed at the line. The Saints have an offense designed to make life easier for receivers that can have trouble with that by giving them more space to operate and letting Brees find the open guy, picking the defense apart.
While Cooks has some question marks about his ability to get off of press, he is a small receiver that is incredibly effective at finding openings and space in the red zone, having a ton of success there in college. Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston are more suited to be red zone threats but while teams focus a lot of attention on trying to stop them, Cooks can get open and make plays.
Assuming the Saints work out a deal with Graham, they have tremendous size in the middle of the field while having a ton of quickness and speed on the outside. Personally, I thought of Cooks as a second round prospect, but the fit here is so good that it alleviates just about every concern I had and I think that could allow him to warrant the first round pick they spent to get him.
In the second round, the Saints caught more than a few people by surprise when they took Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The Saints have drafted a ton of corners over the past decade and are slated to have two free agents start in Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey. They have struggled in picking corners and former first round pick Patrick Robinson has been relegated to playing in nickel.
Baptiste is raw and there were more than a few people down on him because of it. He was a former wide receiver that made the move to corner at Nebraska and has some mental lapses, but the raw talent to play in coverage is there; especially in man coverage. I viewed him as a top 50 pick because of the fact he has extraordinary height for the position at 6’2 5/8” while having the hips, agility and speed to play on the outside.
There have been some struggles and bumps in the road as he learns, but Baptiste has also shown some moments of brilliance and really looked great in man coverage against some good competition. He does need to become more physical as a tackler and run defender and improve how he locates the football to make plays on it, but he is in a great situation.
Assuming Bailey and Lewis can stay healthy, Baptiste can work at his own pace and really develop and get his technique worked out and hopefully learn from a legend in Bailey. If he can develop, he has the raw physical tools to be an elite corner in the NFL. There is some risk with him, but if a team is going to bet on physical tools, Baptiste is the guy to bet on because of his upside.
In the fourth round, the Saints took a talented developmental inside linebacker in Khairi Fortt. Fortt worked out like a thumper, but he actually plays much faster and is more suited to playing coverage than he is being a downhill run defender. He does have the raw strength to take on and shed blocks, but needs to want it more and refine his technique in that part of his game. If he can do that, he could be an all-around linebacker in waiting for the Saints behind David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. His earliest impact initially is likely on special teams and then perhaps nickel. The Saints want to play with a lead and get more athletes on the field to try to shut teams down through the air.
In the fifth round, the Saints made a pretty curious pick in Vinny Sunseri. On paper, the Saints have the best pair of safeites in the NFL with Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd, who was their biggest splash in free agency. Short of a catastrophic situation, Sunseri is a backup and special teamer. It makes sense from the standpoint he is coming off an ACL injury and he can potentially be stashed, but there are legitimate concerns on how much better Sunseri could get.
Sunseri declared early from Alabama despite the ACL in part because it seemed like he might not even start there as they had the next big Bama safety ready to come in and play. Nick Saban wanted Sunseri to stay, but it seemed more like an insurance policy and extra coach if their next safety is unable to do the job right away. Perhaps there is more upside than currently let on and when he gets back from his ACL, he can find it, but this pick is odd in that they have two great safeties and took a smart, solid, but not overwhelming athlete in Sunseri to play behind them.
Later in round 5, the Saints made another pick of an injured player in Ronald Powell, but the difference between Powell and Sunseri is that Powell was an extremely talented athlete. The problem is that Powell has been hurt as often as he has played and while he has shown promise, he has run into problems just as he has started to get it going. After a big sophomore season, there were some that thought Powell had a chance to be a first round pick.
Powell has the size, strength and speed to be a pass rusher in the Saints scheme if he can stay healthy. The investment here was perfectly reasonable because if they can even get a year or few out of him at a high level, it would be worth it. If he can stay healthy for an extended period of time, he could be a steal. The obvious fear is that he will never be able to stay healthy and he could ultimately be unable to play for them.
The pick on its face makes a lot of sense, but the issue is the Saints overall outside linebacker is questionable. Powell is not the only injury question as Victor Butler has had similar issues and Parys Haralson is mediocre. So after Junior Gallette, the Saints have a precarious situation at that spot. It seems like a given that the Saints will need to address this position in next year’s draft.
The Saints finished up their draft by taking an undersized offensive tackle in Tavon Rooks. While tackle is a huge focus in most offenses, the interior of the line is far more important to what they do. They have big, strong guards up the middle that make it difficult for opponents to collapse the pocket, which gives Brees space to see the field and step into his throws. The tackles in their offense are extremely athletic and largely there to seal off speed rushers. Beyond that, Brees is getting rid of the ball before they can cause too much of a problem.
Rooks is undersized, but this fits what the Saints do. They will want him to get bigger but his athleticism is why they took him. It remains to be seen if he can stay on the roster or if he is destined to land on the practice squad, but the idea is definitely more of a developmental one with Rooks. They took a similar approach with Charles Johnson, Zach Strief and Terron Armstead. Armstead was the earliest selected in round 3.
In general, the Saints attacked some needs and got some value picks, but they will enter the season with some holes. Pass rusher is the most notable but is the one that could hurt them the most this year. Their approach to the rest of the roster is interesting as they may only get a large amount of immediate impact from Cooks this year. This draft has the feel of one that is more aimed at making a big difference next year while the free agent moves were designed to help make a difference immediately and get them back to the playoffs. The offense is loaded, presuming they can keep Graham while the defense was vastly improved last year but is still a work in progress.