The 2011 draft has come and gone and it was certainly an exciting one for Saints fans. The Saints managed to find a good combination between value and need in this draft, addressing most of their key needs but also finding some tremendous value with some of their draft picks. The Saints focussed on what I identified as two of their weakest areas last season, the front-seven of the defense and the running game. I’m breaking down and analyzing the whole draft and what the picks can bring to the Saints.
2011 Draft Picks – DE Cameron Jordan (24th overall pick), RB Mark Ingram (28th overall pick), LB Martez Wilson (72nd overall pick), CB Johnny Patrick (88th overall pick), DE Greg Romeus (226th overall pick), LB Nathan Bussey (243rd overall pick).
Overall, a few years from now, I think we might be calling this one of the better draft classes in Saints history. Although the Saints only had six picks in this year’s draft, it’s hard to find a questionable prospect in their first four picks. Cameron Jordan was rated by most experts as a top-10 to top-15 talent and the Saints got him with the 24th overall pick. The most negative comment I can find about Jordan is that his technique and moves can use some refinement but he is going to be coached by Greg Williams, one of the best defensive minds in the league, so it is an ideal situation. Jordan provides an instant upgrade over Alex Brown on the left side of the defensive line and, while he is not considered to be an “elite” pass-rusher, he is a very complete defensive end with a good combination of size, speed and athleticism.
After securing a good defensive end prospect with the 24th overall pick, the Saints were then able to trade back into the first round to take the best running back in the draft. Many scouts have compared Mark Ingram to hall of fame running back Emmit Smith and they do have very similar styles. Ingram will share carries with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and likely Reggie Bush but he should have very good production with the Saints. Ingram is also a very capable receiver out of the backfield so defenses will not be able to key on the run. Most importantly, an effective running game will open things up for Drew Brees and the passing game. Remember when Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell were racking up rushing yards in the 2009 season? Drew Brees was lighting defenses up down field and I know the Saints would like to get back to that kind of offense. For a coach who loves to throw the ball as much as Sean Payton, he also places great value on the running game and he will make sure there are plenty of carries / receptions to spread between Ingram, Thomas, Ivory and Bush. The cost to get Ingram was high but if he does what he his capable of doing for the Saints running game, I believe it will end up seeming like a good value.
Next, the Saints get a linebacker who was viewed by many experts as a second round pick in the top of the third round. Martez Wilson was a very productive player at Illinois and, like Cameron Jordan for the defensive end position, provides an instant upgrade to the linebacker position. Wilson will likely compete for a starting job at one of the outside linebacker positions, most likely the strong side. He will have to make an adjustment after playing inside at college but, again, he has one of the best defensive coaches to help in his transition. Wilson has very good edge rushing abilities which should help the Saints bring pressure on the quarterback in obvious passing situations.
Cornerback was not a huge position of need for the Saints but I think this is a pick where the Saints went after the best player on their draft board in Johnny Patrick. In his final season at Louisville, Patrick was very close to being a shutdown corner. With Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, Patrick won’t be starting anytime soon but I could see him making an impact in nickel and dime situations. With injuries at the position, it also never hurts to have a stable of good defensive backs. Picking Patrick here could also make veteran Randall Gay expendable, allowing the Saints to both clear some potential salary cap room and to continue to get younger at key positions on their defense.
The Saints took another defensive end and another linebacker with their two seventh round picks. Greg Romeus would have likely been a much higher rated prospect if not for a history of injuries. When healthy, he was a very productive player both on defense and on special teams, earning Big East co-defensive player of the year honors in his junior season. If he is able to rehab from an ACL injury, the Saints may have found a steal here in the 7th round. At the ery least, when healthy, he figures to be a solid backup and special teams contributor. Nathan Bussey also figures to be developmental prospect after playing both safety and linebacker in college. He will have to learn an adapt to an NFL defense but, as I have stated several times, he has Greg Williams as a coach who will definitely get the most of his potential.
In his draft grades, ESPN’s Mel Kiper criticized the Saints for not drafting players for the offensive line, specifically an offensive tackle. I’m not an expert like Kiper but my question is, why did the Saints need to? The offensive line right now is the same as it was when the Saints won the super bowl. Last season defenses were able to hurry and get to Drew Brees more often but that can be blamed on lack of a consistent running game as much as it can on the offensive line. Also, the Saints drafted Alex Brown in the second round of the 2010 draft and he has yet to see any substantial playing time. Brown was viewed by many experts as a first round talent who slipped. It is likely that Brown will compete with Jermon Bushrod for the starting left tackle job this year. The Saints also drafted center Matt Tenant in the 2010 draft. I say give the players they have a chance before saying they need to draft more help.
I will say again that I doubt the drafting of Mark Ingram signals the end of Reggie Bush’s time in New Orleans. Multiple comments from Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis suggest that they want to keep Bush on the team and they should. Bush and Ingram have very different styles and Bush has value to the team in certain packages, as a slot receiver and a return man. Having Ingram in the backfield allows them to use Bush in an ideal situation, 10-15 plays per game, setup for him to try to break a home run. Anything could happen and it will ultimately be decided on if they can renegotiate Bush’s contract but I expect that he will be a Saint again next season.
I think the most important thing now for the Saints is for the lockout to end. The newly drafted players need to get with their coaches and teammates and get to work. The Saints figure to have at least three players in this draft that will see significant playing time and they need to be able to learn the plays an get to work.
Until the lockout ends, news might be scarce. I will be posting some comments on the labor situation as well as some thoughts on where the Saints might look in free agency. It was an exciting draft for Saints fans and has the potential to lead to a very good season.