Can the Saints Afford To “Gamble” With Their Top Pick?


It’s hard to believe that the Senior Bowl is already over with, and it won’t be before too long that the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine will be upon us — which will be then followed by the 2016 NFL Draft.

The lull or the “waiting period” for an NFL team that was booted from postseason action, while awaiting the new season is almost nothing it seems; compared to the anguish fans have between the Scouting Combine and the Draft — a nearly two month “dead period” only broken in the middle by NFL Free-Agency, which begins March 9th.

A big reason for that would be the bombardment of mock drafts and speculation that goes on between now and April 28th; when the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Rosemont Theatre in Chicago, actually kicks off.

For the New Orleans Saints, one area of speculation that everyone even outside the fan-base can agree on, is that they can’t afford to “miss” on any picks going into this draft — especially with their first round pick at #12 overall.

Now that can seem like a given for anyone, including a team like the Cleveland Browns; who despite have a bevy of picks over the years, have “hit” on so very few players.

But for the Saints, it’s almost as true because they too are notorious for having an equal amount of failure, when it came securing longtime contributors from their selections.

Heck, forget ‘longtime’, they just need players that can simply contribute for the short-term — seeing as how the last draft they had considered an actual “success” was back in 2006, an entire decade ago.

Apr 30, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Andrus Peat (Stanford) poses for a photo with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the number 13th overall pick to the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

They had somewhat of a luxury this past year in 2015; when they held two first round picks and were able to select offensive lineman Andrus Peat and linebacker Stephone Anthony.

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Anthony seems at the moment to be the answer at  middle linebacker for the Saints; while Peat is slowly showing signs of improvement after an extremely high learning curve that was only heightened by the expectations placed on him as the thirteenth overall pick.

Both were considered “needs”, and the Saints were able to gamble a little and grab Peat as a “redshirt player” to eventually take over for current right tackle Zach Strief.

I mention the “redshirt” part loosely; since Peat did end up playing but probably sooner than head coach Sean Payton anticipated, mainly due to injuries.

For the upcoming Draft, the Saints find themselves in a similar situation in regards to their draft position with the 12th overall selection, but unlike last year they currently only have that one sole pick.

While the franchise may not want to come out and say they are in “rebuilding mode”, after the last few seasons it’s evident that is exactly what’s happening, even if not in the traditional sense.

If you don’t think that they are “rebuilding”, then ask yourself if years ago fans would have been sweating the recent rumors of Payton possibly coaching his last year in New Orleans — just like they did just a month ago?

Jan 6, 2016; Metairie, LA, USA; Sean Payton talks to the media after announcing he will remain as the head coach for the New Orleans Saints during a press conference at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It’s ok, I’ll wait a few minutes…..

Ok, sure; it’s not a “clean house” type of a rebuild necessarily, but the organization knows that the construction project going on with the current roster can’t end up being the tumultuous game of ‘Jenga’ that it has been recently — where when one piece is off, then the whole tower collapses.

It goes without saying that the Saints have to hit a “bullseye” at #12, even if it’s in the shape of a Peat-like selection where the potential is there for contribution.

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Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has suggested that he’s heard that the Saints are looking heavily at former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith; who prior to his gruesome knee injury at the end of the season might have been out of reach for them at the 12th overall pick.

Reports are that Smith should be ready for the 2016 season despite the injury as a “best case scenario”, with others saying it might cause him to miss only part of the season.

The ultimate “worst case scenario” of course is that Smith would be placed on injured reserve, so that he would be able to “fully” heal for 2017.

The bigger question is can a team like the Saints afford to “roll the dice” on a player like Smith; when they have an obvious GAPING HOLE that needs to be filled at weakside linebacker headlined by Dannell Ellerbe?

While Ellerbe is a good player, his constant absence from injury in 2015 forced a merry-go-round of players into the line-up, which in turn allowed opposing offenses to rack up big-time points nearly every week.

As Big Easy Believer editor Barry Hirstius pointed out in a recent mock draft, Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis has overcome multiple knee injuries like Smith’s, and has still been dominant, but — can the Saints be that lucky?

Oct 10, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a fumble recovery in the third quarter against the Navy Midshipmen at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 41-24. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Jaylon Smith quandary is just one of many roulette-table scenarios that the Saints have to look at, with Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman Noah Spence being another.

The Saints staff was said to have treated Spence to an extended lunch at a local Mobile, Alabama restaurant; not long before Spence dominated at the Senior Bowl, both in practice and during yesterday’s game.

Spence has had off-the-field issues in the form of failed drug tests that forced him to leave Ohio State for Eastern Kentucky; but as the case with Smith, there is no denying his talent or the Saints’ apparent interest.

With the defensive line being another area of need, can the Saints pull the trigger on someone such as Spence; who is quickly rising up the draft boards and risk letting him slip away, although there are concerns?

The reassuring factor in these decisions is that assistant general manager and director of college scouting Jeff Ireland, as recently noted in an article by The Advocate’s Nick Underhill; is that he isn’t “scrambling” this year as compared to his first draft preparation with the team last year in 2015.

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

As Underhill mentioned: if Ireland was simply settling in last year and managed to have what looks to be a competent 2015 Draft, then you should be more than anxious (and maybe even downright excited) to see what he does this year.

Related Story: Saints 2016 Mock Draft 4.0

Of course, Free Agency will also be a factor in how the Saints conduct their draft, and we’ll also get see how much of a “player” that they’ll truly be, despite their issues with getting under the salary cap.

And when it comes to Free Agency for the Saints lately?

Well, let’s just say the word “crapshoot” can best describe that, instead of a “gamble”….