Here are three things I like and three things I disliked about the 2016 Saints draft.
What I liked:
1. The Saints were aggressive with trades, they had a vision and target for players. That's just the way this team operates, like it or not. Mickey Loomis engineered 2 trades in this draft, and fetched the Saints three pretty good players (Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, and Vonn Bell) and one potential pick (David Onyemata) and one potential steal in Daniel Lasco. Solid work, but time will tell if it will turn into wins. I would give the Saints a solid B for this class (I know it's way, way, way early). The pick I'm most excited about is WR Michael Thomas out of Ohio State in the second round. Thomas figures to come in right away and contribute - plus he fills a need, after the team cut Marques Colston this off-season. I love watching Thomas on tape. Drew Brees is going to really benefit from his huge 'catch radius', if you throw it around or near him you've got a lot of margin for error with this guy.
2. I think the Rankins selection will prove to be tremendous! He was the safe pick at 12th overall but he was the right pick as well. Rankins is an all business player that immediately will have an impact with the Saints. "We view him as a pressure player," Sean Payton said after the selection. He's going to produce, he's addicted to playing the game and his approach, and character will prove to be a good one. He's not going to be flashy, or verbose but very productive. After thinking about it for a few days, I don't like this pick. I love it!
3. I really like the 4th round pick. Sure he might be a potential pick, or a project player. However, Defensive lineman David Onyemata is fascinating to say the least. This guy just started playing football four years ago? Really? Think about that for a second; there are hundreds of players that went undrafted this year and have played football nearly their entire life! Onyemata just learned the game. He didn't know what a football was until he arrived in college, and he landed in the fourth round? Sure it's a good story, but teams don't waste picks unless they can play. He can, and he is just scratching the surface of his potential. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis refutes the notion that Onyemata might not be able to contribute this year "We’re expecting some early contribution. This isn’t a guy that is just going to sit and not be productive for us. I think we expect some early contributions from him.” The Saints thought so highly of him the team decided to trade two 5th round picks for him "We had some information, and I am pretty confident that he wouldn’t have been available to us if we would have stayed right where we were at. We’re excited to have him and I would say that we see some versatility in this player," Loomis added.
What I disliked:
1. Draft grades and criticism are in abundance at this time of year, but one thing that instantly jumps out at you is the fact that the team didn't address the offensive line with the draft. The guard position was a percieved area of weakness and need for the team heading into the draft, but the Saints ignored it. What does it mean? Do they like Tim Lelito and Senio Kalemete that much? Not really! The team closed in on un-drafted free agents at that position after the draft closed. I don't like the fact that the Saints didn't draft a player high at that position, but it really speaks to the fact that you ultimately drafted a guard last season with the 13th overall pick in Andrus Peat. "We’re going to do our best to get our five best offensive linemen on the field. I think Sean (Payton) and our staff do a great job of that," Loomis explained after being asked about that possibility. The bottom line is if Lelito, Kelemete, and Peat are the first shot at earning a starting spot - yikes!
2. I'm not as bullish on the selection of Vonn Bell out of Ohio State. He's a safety, and a cover corner in the nickel package. I'm not sure the Saints know how to evaluate that position because they've chased the interception ball hawking safety for years now and have struck out in the process. The Saints traded up for Bell, and that raises the stakes. Some like the pick, some don't. I'm in the camp that thinks it's a position that is hard to evaluate and Pro Football Focus compares him to a younger Jairus Byrd. How did that work out? Turnover machines like Bell are hard to judge, but I'm not sold on the idea that he's going to be an instant impact or starter kind of player. I could be wrong! I'm just saying that is my initial thought.
3. It was really cold in the Saints media room! Next year, I'm bringing a blanket or a coat! If I didn't know any better I would think the Saints are trying to freeze us out of there! I also disliked the 'fans making the picks.' I get it, sure the NFL wants to create this close bond with the fans and season ticket holders; but it just drags on because of the circus. Didn't the league try to trim time off the draft with condensed time in the rounds? I might be in the minority in this opinion, but the 3rd through 7th rounds are likely headed for their own prime time slots one day and that scares me. All in all, the draft is fun but boring at the same time. Mark my words, the draft is headed towards a 'bid process' in conjunction with Super Bowl.
The Saints might be finished with the draft class for 2016, but now the recruiting begins. The Saints have signed the following un-drafted rookie free agents, according to league sources and announcements from some players on their Twitter feeds. The Saints are loading up on offensive linemen, after not drafting one this weekend.
Avery Young - offensive tackle, Auburn
Joseph Cheek - offensive guard/tackle, Texas A&M
Trae Elston - safety, Ole Miss
Mitchell Loewen - TE, Arkansas
Ken Crawley - CB, Colorado
Sione Houma - fullback, Michigan
De’Vante Harris- CB, Texas A&M
Jared Dangerfield-WR, Western Kentucky
Marcus Henry-C, Boise State
Dillon Lee-LB, Alabama
D.J Pettway-DE Alabama
Trae Elston-S, Ole Miss
Jeff Schoettmer-LB, UNC
Jack Allen-C, Michigan State
Dominique Tovell-LB, University of Louisiana Lafayette
The Saints selected Thomas with the 47th over all pick in round 2 of the NFL draft. “He’s big, competitive, I love his hands in traffic and I think he has a very unique skillset. He has real strong hands and has some good runs after the catch. You watch him workout and you watch him compete.”
Payton has openly raved about how he prefers the bigger physical wide outs, and Thomas fits that mold. “I love his size and his competitive nature and his makeup is outstanding.” The Buckeyes run a bit of a different offense, to say the least, so evaluating Thomas was a little harder. “You have to really dig on tape. Really spend time on finding his touches and attempts. He was someone that when the process was over with we had at the receiver position real high on that list,” Payton added.
I wasn’t all that surprised by the decision to draft a wide receiver. However, I didn’t see the Saints trading back into round two to draft another Ohio State player in safety Vonn Bell. The Saints gave up their 3rd & 4th round picks in this class to move up, and Payton said it wasn’t a difficult decision. “When they (Patriots) had two picks there, it just made sense to call and see if they had both players and if they didn’t then all of a sudden it was a possibility and an opportunity,” Payton explained. Bell has a chance to be a special player in the NFL, and by giving up two picks to get him the Saints are indeed putting themselves out there with this move.
Bell factors into the Saints plans in a major way, according to Payton. “He is just a great player. He is someone that can run and (play) “over the slot quite a bit. Our vision would be the same in that we think he can be on the field covering down over a slot.” Payton says the vision for Bell early on is to play him at Free Safety and in sub packages in the defensive backfield. Ultimately this will free up Kenny Vaccaro to play the game he’s best suited for, and that is close to the line of scrimmage, and being physical.
Bell and Payton had extensive conversations on the phone throughout the pre-draft process, and Bell had a feeling the Saints had designs on drafting him. Payton said he passed the final test: “He was one I spoke to a handful of times. There were a couple of shuttles and a jump that was missing that we did not have times on. I just called him up and said that there are three things I need to see here that we receive from everyone. I told him what they were and I said that I need to see those before we’re going to draft you,” Right away Bell complied with his future coach. "We called him up a handful of times. Urban (Meyer) is a guy that I have a good relationship with and he and I have been friends for a long time. This is a guy that is competitive with really good instincts and really good ball skills. I’m glad we got him.”
You had to figure at some point Sean Payton would add to his offense. In the second round, he did. The Saints grabbed the Ohio State WR with the 47th pick over all. I had a hunch the Saints were on the look out today for a wide out. In the off-season the team released Marques Colston and need another red zone threat. It definitely puts WR Brandon Coleman on notice.
“He can contribute immediately. I like the pick because you had to address this position because you let Marques Colston go,” former Saints running back Deuce McAllister explained. NFL draft analyst Mike Detillier had Thomas as the 6th best wide out on his draft board. “He’s going to really present some match up problems in the red-zone,” he said.
Thomas is the nephew of former Jets No.1 pick Keyshawn Johnson. “Playing at Ohio State, when you get that chance and get the ball in the air you want to make the most of it. I knew that if I didn’t make a play, someone on our offense would” he added. The selection of Thomas so far has been met with mixed reviews.
“I’m going to come in add value - they have a great group down there with Brees, and Cooks. I just want to come in and play my part,” Thomas told Bobby Hebert and Deke Bellavia.
Going back to the Senior Bowl, this Louisville defensive tackle raised eyebrows and caught the attention of NFL scouts. "I knew I had to set my self apart. I wanted to dominate the individual drills. I wanted to dominate in the film room. I felt like I did that," Rankins explained.
His business-like and no nonsense approach really caught the attention of the media and scouts on hand. Again the Saints went with production, character and talent staying true to their values. Rankins will be used to the way the Rams use Aaron Donald.
“He’s got a ton of pass rush skills, he was putting on a clinic at the Senior Bowl. It was like 'pick your poison' going up against offensive linemen,” explained NFL draft analyst Mike Detillier. Rankins left the Senior Bowl in the middle of the week with a slight calf injury but did enough to vault himself into the first round.
T-Bob and I had him on Double Coverage earlier this week. I walked away from that interview impressed with his maturity, and focus. He’s not just a one trick pony either, “Oh, he can stop the run. The Saints need to keep him active with stunts and games and he’ll really succeed,” one NFL scout told me.
“Rankins can also stuff the run and will remind you of Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Kawann Short," continued Detillier. Last season at Louisville he enjoyed a career-best season, recording 53 tackles and a lead the Cardinals with 8.0 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
It’s like putting together a crime scene and a rubik's cube at the same time. Incredibly frustrating and intresting at the same time. Questions abound about where the Saints stand on QBs, LBs and other players. Here is what I suggest; don’t read to much into what you hear, but file it away for future reference. Here is what I think I know.
Trading for a QB: Not gonna happen! Right? I mean what in the heck would they need a QB for? The Saint drafted one last year (Garret Grayson) and they signed one free agent this off-season. Not to mention trading up for one? I don’t see it happening. Remember the clandestine meeting the Saints had last year with Grayson that no-one knew about until they drafted him? Yeah! If it were so much a secret this year, why would it leak? The Saints control most of the messages coming out of Airline Drive. Could they use it as a bait? You bet they could and are! New Orleans wants teams to think they are in love with QB. The notion fits right? They have an aging QB with a contract that seems out of whack. The Saints aren’t ready to move on from Brees just yet. Memphis QB Paxton Lynch is interesting, but not a target! Don’t buy it!
Moving forward: It’s simple, the Saints want to trade back. If they can’t find a team to trade back with, they’ll simply make the pick at 12th overall. The name I keep hearing is Louisville defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins. When you talk to him, you can’t help but think “He’s a fit, all the way around.” Ranking has production in college (a valued trait), character (another valued trait) and ability. I’ve been told by evaluators in the league he reminds the Saints of St. Louis Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Enough said there, right?
Loomis: On report to move to #1 "NO conversations" another miss by that reporter.
Trade up: I’m mystified by the notion the Saints would want to trade up for a player, but if there is one to covet I would suggest Oregon’s DeForest Buckner. He’s versatile, and perhaps the best fit for the Saints in terms of skills set and character. The problem I have is this; You’re going to have to give up at least a 1st and 3rd rounder this year, and if it didn’t work out for them last year why do it this year? The Saints have 1 player remaining on the roster from the 2012 and 2014 draft class - that hurts so bad! New Orleans needs depth and plenty of it. Why trade up? Buckner is a good player that will have a good career in the league but not worth trading up for. Does he score touchdowns?
Sneaky pick: Watch for the Saints to draft Mile Killebrew in the first three rounds. Killebrew is an interesting player out of Southern Utah. He has tremendous character and ability. Killebrew fits the mold of the hybrid safety and linebacker that is popular in the NFL these days. Watch him in rounds 2 or 3. Killebrew arrives at that the ball with attitude and bad intentions. I love this player, I spent some time with him at the combine, and walked away totally impressed. I would take him!
Ahead of the NFL draft this week, the Saints are releasing DE Tavaris Barnes, according to a league source.
Barnes joined the Saints as an un-drafted rookie free agent last season. Barnes logged 12 games with the Saints, but didn't record a start, and only posted 5 tackles. New Orleans had three un-drafted free agents along the defensive line to make the roster.
The only thing that I'm reading into this move is that clearly, the Saints are going to spend an early round pick on a defensive end or defensive tackle, and releasing Barnes is sign that his roster spot would be in jeopardy after this weekend's draft.
In just a few more days, we'll start to get a clear picture on how the Saints plan to revamp their defense.
UPDATED: Josh Norman won't be a Saint. Josh Norman is signing with the Redskins. So the Saints are back to square one. The Saints were interested in Norman, but the Redskins ultimately had the money to pay him. Interest and getting something done are totally different, the Saints now turn their attention to the draft.
The Saints - of all teams - are making a run at veteran CB Josh Norman, according to a league source that told me "they are interested in Josh," and the decision as to where he signs comes down to the Redskins and the Saints, according to ESPN.
It's hard to imagine because the Saints have just $3.4 million dollars of cap space remaining. New Orleans can create some money, with a restructure of Drew Brees contract, and pull a rabbit out of the hat, but I am very much on record as saying clearly; this wouldn't happen. Apparently I was wrong about that!
The Saints are in the Norman sweepstakes on a possible deal that could average $13-14 million dollars a year. The Carolina Panthers used the exclusive rights franchise tag on the 29 year old cornerback this off-season but pulled the 1 year $13 million dollar deal off the table earlier this week. Norman earned all pro honors last season.
I would be shocked if they pull this move off. However, with the Saints you just never know!
Hokie Gajan! The name, just feels warm, sincere and genuine. That's who Hokie is. I keep referring to Hokie in the present tense, at some point I guess I have to reference him in past tense. I'm not ready to do that yet, however, I am ready to celebrate and gush over a man that truly was a one of a kind. Hokie had a knack for getting to know people and making you feel important, making you feel like you were a part of the conversation. He didn't like attention, so he enjoyed learning about you. We've shared many plane rides together, training camp trips, and radio hours together. As my time with Hokie grew, my admiration and respect grew even deeper.
I was always amazed by his toughness. Hokie would limp through airports in obvious pain with bad knees from his playing days. Gout so bad in his joints that it looked like he had rocks under his skin, but not a peep. Not one complaint came out of his mouth. He just kept moving right along. I would have understood some self-pity, he wouldn't tolerate it. If I asked him about it he would simply say "Well, what am I gonna do? I loved playing and if this is a result of playing football, I'll take it any day of the week.” Vintage #HokieTough.
When he was first diagnosed with cancer back in November, I did a show with him the day he found out. I was surprised how well he was holding up. I would have been a basket case and wouldn't have been able to do the show. Then again I'm not Hokie, not nearly as tough and nowhere close to brave. I've said this before, and I'll say it again; LOVE is word that is sometimes overused or loosely tossed about. However, I LOVE Hokie as men do, and I love him because you knew what you were getting every time you talked to him. He was just real. There was no act, nothing fake. Take it or leave it. He and I would talk often about sports, but more often about life. He was fascinated with my military service, and joked that he could have never done it. Yeah Right, Hokie would have made Marines look soft. He's that tough.
Occasionally Hokie would give me some guidance like a father about certain things going on in my life and more often than not he gave me advice as a friend. If I were stranded with no money and no food, he would be one of the people I would call, because he was dependable. I could count on Hokie. He would just say "Hang on Gomer, I'll be right there.” No questions asked.
Hokie loved people. He loved his family and loved his team mates. He's the human being we all want to be. Simple, tough, funny and a tremendous friend. RIP Hokie, go teach St. Peter how to catch that red fish.
Another sign that football season inches a tad closer by the day - the Saints have released their 2016 preseason schedule. New Orleans will play the first two exhibition games on the road due to renovation work in the Superdome, where Who Dats can look forward to brand new score boards.
Week 1 - (week of Aug. 14) - at New England Patriots
Week 2 - (week of Aug. 21) at Houston Texans
Week 3 - (week of Aug. 28) vs Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 4 - (Week of Sept. 2) vs Baltimore Ravens
The times and dates of the preseason scheduled haven't been announced yet. The NFL hasn't confirmed the date of the regular season schedule release, but you can expect it later this month - last year they released it a few days before the draft.
With New England on the preseason schedule in week 1, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Saints and Patriots hold some joint practices. Last year New England traveled to the Greenbrier for three days of work against the Saints. Or the Saints could decide to work agains the Texans before the week two preseason game.