So far in the 2014 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints have managed to generate some excitement among the Who Dat Nation by bringing in some flash. They started off by landing the fastest receiver in the draft in Brandin “Sonic Boom” Cooks out of Oregon State to be their new change-of-pace man. Then Friday night the went out and got one of the biggest cornerbacks in the draft, the 6’3″, 218 lbs Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The Nebraska product has drawn repeated comparisons to Seattle’s Richard Sherman and New England’s Brandon Browner.
Now as the black & gold head into Day 3, it’s time to start finding some foundational pieces. While the players they draft today with their four picks in the first three rounds of the day will likely be nothing more than rotational and special teams players at first, several could be in a position to move into a starting role over the next few years as current starters get older. With that in mind, let’s see some of the gems still out there that could help the Saints.
While Mickey Loomis was able to bring back Zach Strief back this off-season to fill the starting right tackle role, there is still a gaping hole in the offensive line at the center position. Unfortunately this draft class has been one of the thinnest at the center position in years. With the top three players at the position now off the board, options are starting to run low if the Saints want to draft someone to compete with Tim Lelito. Probably the best option left to fill their needs is offensive lineman Russell Bodine out of North Carolina. Bodine is an aggressive two year starter who has experience playing both center and guard. In addition to being an solid blocker in both the run and pass game, he has the type of strength that is ideal in an interior lineman. At this spring’s combine Bodine put up 42 reps on the bench press, half a dozen more than any other player there. He also finished no lower than sixth in both the vertical and broad jump, showing his superior lower body burst. All things considered, Bodine appears to have the tools to be a force along New Orleans’ interior offensive line for years to come.
The Saints could also use another offensive tackle to backup Strief and budding star left tackle Terron Armstead. One name that surprising to still find on the list of available prospects is Antonio Richardson from the University of Tennessee. Nicknamed “Tiny”, he’s anything but at 6’6″, 336 lbs. His sheer size forces pass rushers to reroute their attack on quarterbacks since they can’t go through him while also functioning as a massive road grader in the run game. With Strief heading into his age 31 season, it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibilities of extended injuries or not finishing out his full five-year contract. It only makes sense to have another starting quality tackle on the roster ready to fill in if needed.
Marques Colston and Robert Meachem both are facing their early 30’s, Joe Morgan coming off his second lost season due to a major knee injury and Nick Toon has done…well, nothing. With one of the best wide receiver draft classes the league has seen in years, it would make perfect sense to grab a second man at the position. One player still available is Kevin Norwood. Through the course of the off-season, several reports have come out saying the coach Sean Payton was very high on the former Alabama receiver. Drawing comparisons to former Bears receiver Earl Bennett, Norwood provides quarterbacks with a big, quick target with sure hands. Regarded as solid across the board, Norwood would give Drew Brees one more weapon to carve up opposing defenses.
Also still on the board is Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders. Despite his small size, he has impressive speed running a sub-4.4 40 time. His sure hands and shifty moves make him reliable both making the catch as well as after. Saunders has also made his mark in the punt return game. Over his last two seasons in Norman, he returned 25 punts averaging 16 yards a piece with three going for touchdowns. Saunders could prove to be the Saints’ new Lance Moore.
While New Orleans’ defensive line is mostly regarded as solid and not a pressing need, there is still room for improvement. Toward the latter part of last season, there was a noticeable shift away from veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and toward rookie John Jenkins with playing time shifting in favor of Jenkins. With Bunkley’s role diminishing but his price tag still over $5M for the next couple seasons, finding a young replacement to develop makes sense. Tennessee’s Daniel McCullers is a mountain of a man that can eat up a lot of space in the middle of the defensive front. At 6’7″, 352 lbs., McCullers routinely managed to handle double and even triple teams from opposing blockers on his own against the run. While not the quickest on his feet, he knows how to use his strength and leverage to collapse the pocket in the passing game. Pairing McCullers with Jenkins could make the middle of the Saints’ defense off limits to opposing offenses for years to come while also giving inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne room to work.
One thing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan showed the Who Dat Nation last season is that he loves safeties. While Kenny Vaccaro, Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush are all expected to make their presence known on the field, there are still some lingering questions about Vaccaro’s backup Marcus Ball. While he may have performed well in the CFL, he’s never taken a snap in the NFL. He also is the product of what was a weak college defense in a weak conference at Memphis. With that in mind it may be a wise idea to pick up LSU strong safety Craig Loston. With four years spent in the SEC, Loston has the closest thing to NFL experience a player can have short of actual league experience. Known as a hard hitter with good speed and instincts, Loston has drawn comparisons to Vaccaro as well as 49ers safety (and former LSU teammate) Eric Reid for his style of play. He also knows how to get turnover with six interceptions to his credit over the past two seasons. With Loston in the Saints’ backfield, it could leave opponents think they’re seeing double of Vaccaro.