It’s player development, not a draft grade, that’s most important for Saints
It’s too early to grade the New Orleans Saints 2021 draft.
The Saints entered the first round on Thursday holding eight picks and when the draft concluded Saturday they had six new players, having used two picks in two trades to move up.
The willingness to reduce the number of picks to increase the quality of the selections was consistent with comments Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis made Wednesday.
“I don’t see a lot of holes in our roster,” Loomis said, even though the Saints have lost a dozen contributors from last season’s team.
The list ranges from future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees to starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins to sack specialist Trey Hendrickson to special-teams standout Justin Hardee.
All of the departures will require that someone who was not on the team last season make the team next season. But even though newcomers will take the former Saints’ roster spots, that doesn’t mean the former Saints’ roles must be assumed by newcomers.
The cash-strapped Saints’ have found just three veteran free agents – fullback Alex Armah, tight end Nick Vannett and defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnow. The six draft choices – defensive end Payton Turner, linebacker Pete Werner, cornerback Paulson Adebo, quarterback Ian Book, tackle Landon Young and wide receiver Kawaan Baker – are candidates of varying strengths to grab roster spots.
But, again, roles are a different animal.
Now is not the time to grade this group. In fact the end of the 2021 season won’t be the time for that either.
The upcoming season will be a referendum of how well the Saints replace the productivity that was lost. In that sense the season will give us a better opportunity to grade the 2020 draft and the last few before that – rather than this embryonic draft.
“I think it’s hard to make our team,” Loomis said. “I think we have a lot of talent (at) a lot of positions and when you look at each of these position groups a lot of times it’s hard to envision a rookie coming in and displacing some of our veterans. So I wouldn’t say that volume is a priority for us. I think quality is a priority for us.”
The most important factor in the Saints ability to win a fifth consecutive NFC South title will not be performance of the free agents they signed, nor will it be that of the players they drafted during the last three days, or the undrafted free agents they add to the rookie class.
The most important factor will be their ability to accelerate the rate of development of young veterans – players selected in the last four drafts.
The Saints roster features three players from the 2020 draft – guard Cesar Ruiz (No. 1), linebacker Zach Baun (No. 3) and tight end Adam Trautman (No. 3).
It features three players from the 2019 draft – center Erik McCoy (No. 2), safety C.J. Gardner Johnson (No. 4) and linebacker Kaden Elliss (No. 7).
The roster features three players from the 2018 draft – defensive end Marcus Davenport (No. 1), wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (No. 3) and offensive lineman Will Clapp (No. 7).
That’s nine young players that have the opportunity to enter the rotation for the first time, or ascend from a rotation player to a starter or become more productive in the starting role they already have earned.
How well these players produce in 2021 will not only have a significant impact on the Saints won-lost record, it will also have a significant impact on the evolving degree of success for past Saints drafts.
In fact, even the 2017 draft, one of the most bountiful in franchise history, remains a work in progress. Can cornerback Marshon Lattimore (No. 1), tackle Ryan Ramczyk (No. 1), safety Marcus Williams (No. 2) and running back Alvin Kamara (No. 3) become even more productive than they already have been?
Grade the Saints for how well or how poorly they seem to have shopped during these last three days if you must.
But a more useful exercise would be to use this most recent player selection process as a reminder that drafts cannot be assessed intelligently until years have passed.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…