With the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl now over with, the time has come to begin looking ahead to the draft. These two games signify the beginning of the draft season since it’s the first chance to see many of the year’s top prospects going head to head giving scouts a truer sense of each prospect’s abilities. Now that the major draft boards have had a chance to adjust to the events of the past few weeks it seems to be the appropriate time for a first mock draft of the year.
Before getting to the picks though, a little context is needed. Some picks may seem higher or lower than they should be based on current circumstances. The reason is that this mock draft is based on several assumptions about what will happen between now and the draft during free agency. These assumptions are based on Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton’s approach to roster building: fix whatever issues possible in free agency so the draft can be about building for the future.
One assumption is that the Saints will address their need at cornerback in free agency. After the way things worked out counting on Champ Bailey and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, it seems highly unlikely that the Saints would dare take a chance of heading into the draft without having this position nailed down. Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have already started making moves to shore things up. Just about two weeks ago the Saints signed CFL standout cornerback Delvin Breaux. In addition to Breaux, look for New Orleans to possibly add one more corner in free agency.
Second, New Orleans will make a splash move going after a pass rusher. With Junior Galette possibly missing time this coming season in connection with the recent events at his home in Metarie, the Saints will need to find someone this off-season they are sure can get to the quarterback. Fortunately, there are quite a few options in free agency such as Pernell McPhee. He is almost a carbon copy of Paul Kruger who the Saints went after hard in free agency two years ago. The one key difference is that McPhee boasts a 40 time a full two-tenths of a second faster than Kruger.
Finally the Saints will look to free agency to find some proven protection for Drew Brees up the middle. While Tim Lelito once looked like the future at center, his blocking struggled in pass-heavy situations. Perhaps the biggest indictment of Lelito’s performance by the Saints was choosing to stay with an aging, banged up Jonathan Goodwin even after the season was lost rather than give Lelito more experience as a starter. Rodney Hudson would be a big move toward solidifying the interior of the offensive line. Not only does Hudson excel in both pass and run blocking, but he also rated as the best screen blocker in the league this past season.
With these three caveats in place, here’s an early first look at the 2015 NFL draft for the New Orleans Saints.
Round 1: Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
The Saints’ wide receiving corps is in need of some new blood. With both Marques Colston and Robert Meachem both in steep decline, the only two roster locks for 2015 are Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks. Even if Nick Toon earns a roster spot in training camp and Jalen Saunders locks up a sixth receiver spot as a kick returner, the Saints are still a couple of weapons short. White has the build and athletic ability to bring in pretty much any ball that comes his way including leaping catches over defenders. This past season White used those skills to rack up nearly 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns despite being frequently double-teamed in coverage. When his coaches asked him to run more types of routes from 2013 to 2014 they were rewarded with an increase in his productivity. NFL Network analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah has gone so far as to say White “has the same traits as Julio Jones.” So not only would White supplement the Saints’ passing game, but his presence in practice would help better prepare the defense for when they face the original Jones twice a year.
Round 2: Jalen Collins, CB, LSU
Bringing in Breaux was definitely a step in the right direction, but after the Bailey debacle this past season you can bet Payton will make sure he has more than one option to fill the vacant starting position opposite Keenan Lewis. Collins has all the talent and tools needed to succeed in the NFL. Despite his limited starting experience, he’s already a high performer that has incredible potential with some pro-level coaching. Collins has been highly regarded by analysts for his instincts to make plays on the ball, his leaping ability to compete for jump balls and his speed to chase down opponents who break free. Perhaps the most compelling argument for selecting Collins comes from his coaches at LSU who according to one draft analyst were telling scouts that he was one of the few defensive backs who was capable of locking down Odell Beckham Jr. in practice when they were teammates in Baton Rouge.
Round 3: Preston Smith, DE, Mississippi State
There’s no debating that the Saints’ linebacking corps needs to improve drastically. Smith is the type of solid performer teams hope to be able to find in the 3rd round. This past season alone he managed 15 tackles for a loss as well as 15 hurries and 9 sacks. His ability to disrupt the backfield is a talent the Saints could certainly make use of, especially with his ability to play from both a two and three point stance. He’s also proven that he knows how to use his considerable build, his long arms and his large hands to be a disruptive force even without getting into the backfield. As a senior Smith had 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 2 blocked kicks.
Round 4: Austin Shepard, OT, Alabama
The offensive line was a key area of concern for many observers this season. Shepard would be a good step in the right direction for correcting those issues. As a senior at Alabama, Shepard only allowed two sacks working primarily at right tackle. His long arms and good lateral movement allow him to better block and control defenders in addition to his ability to anchor against bull rushes. Shepard does a have a few hand placement and fitness issues that he will need some coaching on. With a little hard work in practice along with a watchful eye from the strength & conditioning team Shepard should make a quality replacement for Bryce Harris this coming season with the potential to become a starting guard or tackle a year from now.
Round 5: Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary
After watching some 30 dropped passes this past season, a sure set of hands would be a nice change of pace. McBride drew a great deal of attention at the East-West Shrine Game for his ability to reel in any ball thrown in his direction even when contested. He’s a gifted route-runner with the skill and quickness in making his cuts to create separation between himself and defenders. His skills have drawn comparisons to both Brandon LaFell and Pierre Garcon from some analysts. He also has shown himself to be an asset as a kick and punt returner.
Round 6: Jermauria Rasco, DE, LSU
One thing you can never have enough of in a 3-4 defense is pass rushers. Rasco has the quickness and technique to be effective as a pass rusher and the strength and lateral agility needed to defend the run. Rasco runs a 4.84 40 time, almost identical to Galette. He’s also been credited with having a very high football IQ which is seen as the reason he’s rarely out of position or drawn in by play-action plays. One report on Rasco remarks that despite teammate Danielle Hunter’s higher draft grade, Rasco is the more polished of the two players and he does not disappear for stretches like Hunter.
Round 7: Greg Mancz, C, Toledo
Finding a quality player in the final round of the draft tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Mancz appears to be one of those exceptions. By all accounts he is a highly intelligent, talented and technically-sound center who has played all three positions along the offensive line. The only consistent criticism to be found of Mancz is his strength. At only 300 pounds, he would need to spend much of his time in the weight room from day one to help pack on another 15-20 pounds. Once he bulks up a little, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t become a quality starter in the middle of the Saints’ offensive line.