HAPPY EASTER! This morning, your New Orleans Saints are now only a mere 11 days away from the making their selections of some of the nation’s top college football players, in the 2017 NFL Draft; which begins next Thursday Night, April 27th, in Philadelphia.
Now as of this very moment, the Saints now come into this year’s Draft armed with 5 out of the first 103 picks in what many consider the deepest draft for players on the defensive side of the football specifically, in a very long time.
The Saints will be picking at #11, 32, 42, 76, 103, 196, and finally at number 229 overall. The Saints do not have a pick in either the 4th or 5th Round.
While there’s a strong argument to made for the Saints to go “all in” with defensive players in this year’s Draft, they could also decide to further strengthen or upgrade their top-rated offense as well.
One thing to remember before we start: in my first Mock a few weeks ago, many of the players that I chose were players whom I personally would like to see the team take, or players that I think they should take.
In this latest version this morning, I try to do my best front office impersonation, and select the players whom I believe the Saints THEMSELVES will take, based on their current needs. Whether or not I actually end up being right on any of these picks, will be determined in 11 more days from now.
So with that in mind, let’s get started.
And we begin with this young man, with the Saints’ first selection at #11 overall……
ROUND 1 (#11 OVERALL) DEREK BARNETT, EDGE RUSHER / DEFENSIVE END, TENNESSEE
In our first Mock a few weeks back, I took Temple linebacker Haason Reddick with this pick because I felt that he will be “pound for pound” the best overall defensive player on the board when the Saints pick at #11. As it is at this very moment, I must admit that I STILL feel that way. But that view was coming from my own perspective, and wasn’t keeping in mind that the Saints are in a “win now” mode and likely won’t want to take a chance on a high risk / high reward player such as Reddick.
So this time around I’m instead going to do the same thing that I believe the Saints will do: which is take the “safe pick” with a player who in all probability could very well be still sitting on the board for them by that point — Tennessee edge rusher / defensive end Derek Barnett. While Myles Garrett will likely be taken with the #1 overall pick and is considered to be the top-rated edge rusher in the entire Draft, a very strong argument can be made that Barnett is the #2 rated player at that position.
Barnett is one of the most feared pass rushers of this class, and the 6-foot-3 inch, 259 pounder had 10 or more sacks in each of his 3 seasons in Knoxville (the only player in the SEC player to do so). He also managed to break NFL Hall of Fame legend Reggie White’s school records for sacks (33), and finished second in school history with 52 tackles for loss. Additionally, he also added an impressive tally of 31 QB pressures in his career.
Barnett isn’t an “elite” athlete like Garrett is, which is why he could fall out of the Top 10. But his mental aptitude and on-field awareness make up for his noted lack of athleticism; and his relentless drive and passion for playing the sport of football is what clearly motivates his aggressive effort to make big plays in the most crucial of moments. The biggest knock on Barnett besides his lack of athleticism however, has been that he is too slow in comparison to some other ‘quicker’ edge rushers — though no one has done it as well and as consistently than Barnett has against “the best of the best” in the SEC. And he still is only just 20 years old, to boot (he turns 21 in June).
Keep in mind: there a handful of different players that the Saints could take in this spot. But similarly to last year when they made the “safe pick” (and the right pick as it turned out) with outstanding rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, it’s safe to assume that the Saints want to ensure that they “knock it out of the park” with this pick — which is why I believe that if Barnett is still on the board when New Orleans is on the clock, he will be wearing the Black and Gold in his rookie 2017 NFL season.
ROUND 1 (#32 OVERALL) ZACH CUNNINGHAM, INSIDE LINEBACKER, VANDERBILT
If a defensive end that can effectively and consistently rush off of the outside edge is the Saints’ “biggest” team need, then a cornerback to play on the outside boundary opposite of Delvin Breaux and a linebacker that can play for a decade or more in the middle of the Saints defense, aren’t all that far behind.
How the board falls depending on what the other teams ahead of them do, will ultimately affect their eventual strategy going forward with each pick. And with this year’s cornerback class being as deep at any position this year than most, the “easy pick” to make at #32 then is grabbing one of the best linebackers still on the board (some Mocks have him earlier, others have him later than this spot) — Vanderbilt inside / outside linebacker Zach Cunningham.
Cunningham started off the mock draft season as a “lock” to be a 1st-round pick; but he recently seems to have disappeared off a lot of the recent mock drafts lately. Amid the concerns of a few NFL scouts as well as a handful of analysts that cover the Draft, are that he does miss some tackles and he doesn’t have the elite speed of a Haason Reddick; but yet he can cover ground rather quickly in getting to the ball carrier, as a sideline-to-sideline defender who has natural on-the-field instincts which are often compared to Reuben Foster of Alabama — who the Saints would very gladly take at #11 but appears to be headed to Cincinnati at #9.
Getting Cunningham in this spot is a huge “value pick” for the Saints, given what he has proven capable of doing. In his senior season in 2016, Cunningham finished with 125 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss; which was good for both 1st-team SEC honors and 1st-team All-American honors as well. Besides missing tackles, the other knock on Cunningham is a lack of strength. But despite lacking “super-human” strength, we’re still talking about a kid who’s been named All-SEC twice — let alone once in what is the nation’s premier conference in the SEC.
In his column just the other day, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller said that an unnamed NFL team scout told him in reference to Cunningham: “He (Cunningham) missed some tackles, but did you see how many tackles that he still made?“ That speaks to the type of ability that Cunningham will bring to the NFL, and if in fact he would be still sitting there at #32? Then the Saints should run — not walk — the pick of Cunningham up to the podium.
ROUND 2 (#42 OVERALL) KEVIN KING, CORNERBACK, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
Assuming the Saints don’t trade for Patriots CB Malcom Butler, which as of right now doesn’t seem likely as it had been speculated a few weeks ago, then it’s almost a given that they’ll target the cornerback position within the first two rounds. After an edge rusher to put on the outside edge opposite of Cam Jordan and a young middle linebacker to play for the next decade in the middle of their defensive Front 7, the Saints’ biggest team “need” is an outside cornerback to play opposite of Delvin Breaux — and King is exactly what the doctor prescribed for New Orleans.
A strong performance at the Combine has seen King rocket up NFL Draft boards, and assuming that LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White — the player that the Saints are secretly hoping is still available at #32 — isn’t there (which for the sake of this Mock, he won’t be), then getting King in this slot just 10 picks later in early Round 2 would be considered “the next best thing”.
Amazingly, King didn’t allow a single touchdown in 2016 and only allowed just one in his last 28 college games. That ladies and gentlemen, is rather impressive. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, King has the “prototype” NFL size, speed and length. He furthered his cause last month at the Combine, posting a 4.43 second 40 time (impressive for a “big” corner), jumped almost 40 inches in the vertical and he additionally had what are considered “elite” measurables in other drills.
Pro Football Focus says that King has an excellent pass breakup radius, with length, height and leaping ability making it very hard to fit the football past him when he is in the area. They also note that King is good in press coverage, squeezing receivers to the sideline and giving them no space to work with. He allowed just three catches from 17 targets on “go” routes in 2016.
Now of course like every draft prospect, King has some flaws. PFF warns that he struggles against top-flight “speed” WR’s at times and has some issues with missed tackles along with being a bit “grabby” at times (which could lead to quite a few illegal contact penalties at the NFL level), but all in all those are issues that can be worked out with the proper amount of coaching and game experience. Bottom line: the kid can play, and he would serve as a perfect complement to Breaux with this pick.
ROUND 3 (#76 OVERALL) CARLOS HENDERSON, WIDE RECEIVER, LOUISIANA TECH
With the departure of Brandin Cooks from the Saints offense following the trade to the Patriots, New Orleans finds itself without a true “deep threat” at the WR position, and likely will be looking for a replacement. But with one of the fastest rising WR’s in the 2017 class having played his college career at Ruston, La. for the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech, the Saints won’t have to travel very far to get him.
Often compared to current NFL star Golden Tate of the Detroit Lions, NFL Draft analyst and part-time scout Ben Natan notes that Henderson scored an incredible total of 23 touchdowns last season: two on the ground, two on returns and 19 coming through the air. And Natan says that Henderson’s nearly effortless speed made him impossible to slow down in 2016 as he went for 1535 receiving yards at 18.7 yards a catch.
Henderson had three games where he eclipsed over 200 receiving yards last year, one where he went over 300, three games where he had 3 or more touchdowns, including a game where he had five. Natan also adds that If Henderson saw targets during a game, he would completely take it over.
Natan says that the biggest concerns with Henderson are a problem with dropped passes at some inopportune times and the learning curve he’ll experience coming from Louisiana Tech into the NFL. Natan also notes that Henderson is a bit smaller and though he plays much bigger than listed, he will need to make sure he can stay in that 180 range at 5-foot-10 because the much lighter receivers rarely succeed in the NFL.
However, Saints fans need to keep in mind that Cooks himself at 5-10 wasn’t the most physically dominating player at the WR position, but he has the quickness to “blow right past” you before you even realize what has happened. Much in that same manner but without the recognition having played at Louisiana Tech and not at LSU, Henderson potentially could become that player for the Saints and fill the void at the WR position created by Cooks’ departure.
ROUND 3 (#103 OVERALL) KAREEM HUNT, RUNNING BACK, TOLEDO
With the departure of Tim Hightower to the 49ers in Free Agency, the Saints are now left without a reliable back-up #2 RB behind starter Mark Ingram; but they also lack another dimension to their running game: the “scatback” type of player capable of catching passes out of the backfield like former Saints RB’s Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles. So just imagine if the Saints could select a player capable of filling BOTH roles? Saints fans: meet Kareem Hunt of Toledo.
At Toledo, Hunt twice topped 1,400 yards rushing in a season, including 2016. As Toledo’s “featured” running back, Hunt rushed for 4,945 yards in his career with 44 touchdowns. He had 1,475 yards as a senior, averaging 5.6 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. But he also showed off his receiving skills — something that the Saints and head coach Sean Payton covet — as a senior with 41 catches for 403 yards, 9.8 yards a catch and one touchdown.
At the Senior Bowl, Hunt furthered his draft stock by rushing 15 times for 118 yards, including carries of 20 and 43 yards and was named the South team MVP. That impressed scouts enough to project him into the mid to late 3rd Round, which is where the Saints would take him with this pick that they got in the Brandin Cooks trade.
However, Hunt doesn’t come without faults. He doesn’t have the “breakaway” speed that Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles had, so he’s not going to threaten to out-race an opponent’s DB’s in the secondary for an 80-yard TD run. The other knock is that because he relies so much on his lateral movement (he looks like a “human pinball” bouncing around back and forth in a handful of different highlights), Hunt can actually make too many moves instead of just putting his head down and earning the yardage. Additionally, Hunt isn’t a great blocker; and he’ll definitely have to improve that aspect of his game at the next level.
I mean wut pic.twitter.com/Tm9OttJcK7
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) April 15, 2017
Bottom line on this kid is that he isn’t in the ‘upper-tier’ of RB’s in this class that include Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, or Christian McCaffrey. But he is good enough to play at the NFL level and play well; and if he ends up in the ‘right system’ for his talents, he could potentially become a “draft day steal” for some lucky team. Perhaps that team could be the New Orleans Saints — who have already worked out Hunt privately and may envision him wearing the Black and Gold.
ROUND 6 (#196 OVERALL) JORDAN STERNS, FREE SAFETY, OKLAHOMA STATE
With the release of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd in February, New Orleans likely will look to target the safety position; despite the presence of last year’s 2nd Round pick Vonn Bell and the recent signing of free agent free / strong safety Rafael Bush, who returned to the Saints after a 1-year stint with the Detroit Lions.
The Saints could still use some quality depth at the position, especially given many of the 3-safety sets that they use in pass coverage. Which is exactly why the pick of Oklahoma State free safety Jordan Sterns could make a lot of sense here with the 196th overall selection.
Sterns put together a heck of a career at Oklahoma State with 100-plus tackles in three consecutive seasons, 38 career starts and All-Big 12 honors as a senior. Which is why his NFL combine snub was considered a bit surprising to most draft analysts, as well as the reason why a player of his caliber can still be had in the 6th Round. However, Kyle Frederickson, The Oklahoman beat writer for Oklahoma State Football; says that despite Sterns’ reputation as one of the most feared and hard-hitting free safeties at the FBS level, some have questioned his coverage skills.
Frederickson adds that an anonymous regional scout for an NFC East team told NFL.com that “He’s the type of player you want in your locker room. He has to prove he’s the type of player you want on your sideline. Has to play up near the line. His instincts are nice, but you can’t have him in space for very long.”
Meaning that despite his undeniable talent and ability to “lay the wood” on someone, Sterns will have to dramatically improve his coverage skills before he succeeds at the next level — meaning he could sure benefit from some first-rate coaching by Saints DB coach Aaron Glenn. He’ll get that opportunity, if he’s still sitting on the board when New Orleans is ‘back on the clock’ in the 6th Round.
ROUND 7 (#229 OVERALL) BRAD SEATON, RIGHT TACKLE, VILLANOVA
There’s no doubt that the Saints could very well seek to draft the eventual replacement to long-time veteran right tackle Zach Strief in this Draft, given that the player originally drafted to replace Strief — 2015 1st Round pick Andrus Peat — ended up as the Saints starting left guard, instead. Which is exactly why a player who can be capable of a long-term solution this late in the Draft, could be an intriguing option.
For most of the 32 teams in the NFL, Villanova’s offensive tackle Brad Seaton presents one such player whose rather massive size (think of WWE pro wrestler Braun Strowman in a helmet and pads) would allow him to tower over even some of the biggest players on a team’s roster. Seaton is a “mountain of a man” (almost literally) who has been measured at 6-foot-8 (though some list him at 6-foot-9) and comes in at 330 pounds.
Seaton started all 13 games for Villanova last year and ended his college career with 30 straight starts, dating back to 2014. The Wildcats averaged 206.3 rushing yards per game and 378.8 total yards of offense in 2016. Their rushing total was third in the Colonial Athletic Association and 24th nationally, while their offense was fourth in the league in yards and fifth in points at 24.4 per game. Seaton certainly had his hand (as large as it is) in helping Villanova reaching those accomplishments.
Says nfl.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein: “There are a handful of very tall tackles with good athleticism in this draft, but most of the others lack a functional anchor to hold up against power. Seaton isn’t a power player, but he appears to have enough natural core strength to project as a swing tackle best-suited to the right side. His ability to operate on the move could appeal to zone running teams.”
Whether Strief does in fact retire after this season or not, it’s never too early to begin preparing for that eventuality. If the Saints can snag a player with the potential that Seaton has this late into the process without having to use a pick on the position any earlier than they want (or need) to, then it’s just an added bonus………
Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 49-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports Editor and Columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of SportsTalk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, grew up as a long-time New Orleans Saints fan who followed and now covers the team for a span of over 40 plus years. Most importantly, he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......