NEW ORLEANS — What will the New Orleans Saints do this Thursday night with their first-round selection (No. 24 overall) in the NFL Draft?
Will the franchise finally select the heir apparent to Drew Brees in Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, taking a signal caller in the first round for the first time since Archie Manning? Will the team pluck one of the talented wide receivers in this year’s draft such as Clemson’s Tee Higgins or Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr.? Or does the team draft a need instead of best player available by selecting a linebacker in Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or LSU’s Patrick Queen?
Even though it is impossible to determine what a franchise will do in the draft, the selection history of New Orleans General Manager Mickey Loomis and longtime head coach Sean Payton may give us a clue in what the Saints might do when the black and gold is on the clock.
Expect a trade or trades
In the past 13 years since Payton became head coach, the Saints have made deals involving first or second round picks in eight of those years. The Saints typically don’t sit pat with their own pick as they tend to trade up in the first round and get the player they covet.
In 2008, New Orleans traded its first round pick (No. 10 overall) and a third-round pick to New England to jump up three spots to select USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. In 2014, New Orleans traded its first-round pick (No. 27) and a third-round to Arizona to take Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks (No. 20). Then in 2018, New Orleans traded up in the first round, again giving up the No. 27 overall pick, a fifth-round pick and their 2019 first-round pick to the Green Bay Packers to take UTSA pass rusher Marcus Davenport (No. 14).
The Saints tend to trade back into the first round just as frequently.
In 2011, the team traded its second-round pick (No. 56 overall) and its 2012 first-round pick (No. 27) to New England to trade back into the first round to select Alabama running back and Heisman winner Mark Ingram (No. 28).
As part of the Jimmy Graham trade in 2015, New Orleans traded the All-Pro tight end and a fourth-round pick to Seattle for center Max Unger and the Seahawks’ first-round pick which the Saints used to select Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony (No. 31).
New Orleans traded back into the first round again in 2017 when they shipped Cooks and a fourth-round pick to New England (yes the Pats again) to select Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (No. 32).
There are a few possible trade partners in this year’s draft that New Orleans could partner with including New England (No. 23), Seattle (No. 27) and San Francisco (No. 31).
So expect the Saints to either trade up or trade back in the first round.
The pairing of Loomis and Payton also tells us what position the Saints covet in the first two rounds of the draft.
From 2006 to 2019, New Orleans drafted 24 players in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. The one position that the franchise values over all others is defensive back. The team has spent nine of those 24 picks on defensive backs with four of those (Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson, Kenny Vaccaro and Marshon Lattimore) coming in the first round.
Yes, the Saints are set with its two starting cornerbacks (Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins) but the team lacks depth at the position. So don’t be surprised if the team selects a cornerback in the first round.
The other position groups the team often drafts early on is offensive line and defensive line as the Saints have spent four picks each on offensive and defensive linemen in the first two rounds during that stretch.
The Saints have needs at both due to injury concerns to starters.
Longtime starting left tackle Terron Armstead started all 15 regular season games last season but missed a combined 18 games due to injuries from 2016-18. Andrus Peat, who the team re-signed this offseason, can play both tackle and guard but is better suited for guard. Taking another quality offensive lineman would give the Saints ever more flexibility.
The defensive line has a pair of talented but often-injured starters in tackle Sheldon Rankins and end Marcus Davenport.
Rankins appeared in only 10 games last season due to an ankle injury and that was after suffering an Achilles injury in the 2018 playoffs. Davenport meanwhile hasn’t played a full regular season in his first two years. Like Rankins, Davenport is a very good player (10.5 sacks in two seasons) when he is healthy. Neither has shown they can be healthy. The Saints could easily add another defensive lineman but might wait until the third round or later to do so with already having reliable players such as Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards, Carl Granderson and Shy Tuttle.
Possible First-Round Targets
If the Saints decide to trade up in the first round (let’s say in the 14 to 20 range) the team will likely target cornerback or linebacker (LSU’s Queen is shooting up the draft boards). LSU’s Jefferson is also climbing, so if the Saints want to draft a Tiger in the first round for the first time ever it will require some work.
If the Saints stay pat at No. 24 or trade back into the first round, then the Saints could still draft a cornerback or shore up the offensive line or defensive lines.
Finally, what about taking an Ohio State player? The Saints have a well-documented history of loving Buckeyes (they have drafted three players in the first two rounds of the past four drafts). Not likely. Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah are likely Top 5 picks. Running back J.K. Dobbins meanwhile is expected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick but not in play for the Saints.
Below are the 10 players the Saints could draft in the first round on Thursday.
If Saints Trade Up in First Round
CJ Henderson, Florida, Cornerback
Patrick Queen, LSU, Linebacker
Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma, Linebacker
Justin Jefferson, LSU, Wide Receiver
A.J. Terrell, Clemson, Cornerback
If Saints Stay Put or Trade Back In
Jaylon Johnson, Utah, Cornerback
Kristian Fulton, LSU, Cornerback
Ezra Cleveland, Boise State, Offensive Tackle
Zack Baun, Wisconsin, Linebacker
Tee Higgins, Clemson, Wide Receiver