With Super Bowl 50 fast approaching, it’s beginning to feel like that first chilly snap of the year that you get every January; which lets you know that the “peak season” of Old Man Winter is about to arrive — and quickly .
Ok, that’s what I’ve heard from people who live elsewhere, anyway; because down here in Louisiana, it’s a “coin flip” as to whether you actually are experiencing ‘Winter’ when you see highs in the 50’s one day, and 70 degree temperatures the next.
But of course, I digress.
No, the Super Bowl means that the “official” end of the 2015 NFL season is near; which in turn leads to preparation for 2016 in terms of the 2016 NFL Draft and Free Agency.
For many of the other 30 teams not playing in Super Bowl 50, including some like the New Orleans Saints who were eliminated from the postseason before the Playoffs even got started; they have already begun the process of identifying weak spots on the roster or changes that need to be made within the staff.
On January 23rd, teams will get a chance to see some early prospects from college at the East-West Shrine Game and a week after that there is the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
In a little under a month after that, the NFL Scouting Combine will take place February 23-29 in Indianapolis; to showcase the athletic skill that can cause some players to shoot up draft boards.
On March 9th at 4:00 p.m., NFL free agency will begin in Wall Street-like frenzy with a lull in the action until April 28th — when the 2016 NFL Draft will take place.
To fans of teams like the Saints, it may feel like forever for those dates to approach, but for others in the Saints front office like Jeff Ireland — it is happening quickly.
Feb 21, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland speaks at a press conference during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Listed as the Saints assistant general manager and director of college scouting, Ireland will be instrumental just like he was last year in helping the team choose wisely when they are on the clock.
Sure the team can fill some holes in free agency, but with limited cap space and a recent track record of more “dinks” than “dunks”, it’s the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft in late April that will be crucial.
Ok, let me back up and say that it’s critical as well as necessary, that the Saints have a draft akin to their 2006 season; which at the moment appears to have happened this past year, when the Saints hit the proverbial “jackpot” in the 2015 NFL Draft.
And to be completely honest: the Saints may even have to hit another “jackpot” in the 2017 NFL Draft next year as well, to get the roster back up to speed — which I understand some folks don’t really want to even think about or imagine right now — but that’s just the very harsh reality of it all.
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It’s one of the reasons I was glad to see Jeff Ireland come aboard last year to help scout out college prospects, that the Saints could build a new foundation upon.
After several mediocre drafts (and one horrible one in 2014), it looks like the Saints finally got it right in 2015 under Ireland’s guidance; by landing not one but TWO LBs (middle linebacker Stephone Anthony & outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha) to be the core players of the next generation of the Saints defense, as this latest version undergoes a massive overhaul.
Add to that some other promising players such as top pick offensive tackle /guard Andrus Peat, QB Garrett Grayson, defensive end Tyeler Davison, safety Damian Swann, and two rookies who were placed on injured reserve — DE / OLB Davis Tull and CB P.J. Williams — and this may have been the best Saints draft in a whole decade.
In their most recent draft history previously under general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, the Saints were known for trading up and mortgaging picks not only for that draft, but the following year’s draft after that, as well.
Reports were that with Ireland coming aboard, he was a calming influence in the 2015 draft room; and encouraged everyone on the staff to trust their draft board.
Feb 19, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New Orleans Saints Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland (left) and General Manager Mickey Loomis (right) at the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
The only trade that occurred was the selection of Damian Swann in the fifth round; that required the Saints to give up their sixth round selection last year, as well as a sixth round pick in the upcoming draft.
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If Swann can stay healthy in regards to the numerous concussions he received in 2015, the trade looks to be a smart and patient one.
Ireland’s next task in looking at the 2016 NFL Draft will be to see which area the Saints should focus on; with weakside linebacker, defensive tackle, and offensive guard being in the forefront (and in that order).
But there’s also the need for another dominant player on the defensive line to give the team a boost in another area that was lacking this past season, which was rushing the passer.
With Dennis Allen appearing to be the choice as permanent defensive coordinator, it will be up to Ireland to help give him the right tools he needs to turn that unit around.
I wouldn’t rule out Ireland’s influence in scouting out some potential veteran players for the club as well, with last year’s trade for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe from his old team the Miami Dolphins having Ireland’s finger prints all over it.
Another Dolphins player Ireland helped draft that Big Easy Believer editor Barry Hirstius pointed out as a potential free agent target is Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon; who could be a bargain find to put opposite Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Oct 18, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) is sacked by Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon (50) and defensive end Cameron Wake (91) during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
While it’s pure specualtion, you’ve got to feel that Vernon is one of those players that Ireland is helping the Saints put their magnifying glass on, when the 2016 NFL Free-Agency signing period starts.
And while Payton’s connection to current assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell has been mentioned as a factor to him choosing the Saints over other a few other teams, Ireland likely had some pull, too — considering the two worked together when both were with the Dolphins.
We saw the Saints taking a positive step with the final game against the Atlanta Falcons, to help build some momentum going into the offseason.
Now it falls to Ireland as one of the main pieces in the front office, to help keep that going with yet another successful offseason with acquisition of rookie, as well as veteran talent on the roster.
Can the Saints hit the jackpot for a 2nd straight time?
Keep your fingers crossed……