Prime candidates for Saints first round pick

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NFL Draft

Now that we are closing in on the opening night of the NFL draft, you would think that we would have a better handle at what the New Orleans Saints will do if they keep their current draft position of No. 24 in the first round.

As we know, the organization has been frequent in trading up and that remains a possibility. So is the possibility of trading down to try to get a second round pick, which the Saints currently lack in a deep draft for talent.

In examining mock drafts everywhere, we will focus on 18 different players projected by various entities to go to the Saints at No. 24.

The player most frequently linked to the Saints, by far, was LSU outside linebacker Patrick Queen of Livonia High School.

Others appearing more than once in mock drafts to the Saints in the first round, alphabetically, were Kristian Fulton, Tee Higgins, Justin Jefferson, Jordan Love and Kenneth Murray.

Here are the 18 players who showed up as the pick of New Orleans at No. 24, with analysis of mine of watching video, along with a compilation of analysis from various draft entities:

Brandon Aiyuk—wide receiver—Arizona State

In the same mold as Jordan Jefferson and Laviska Shenault, Aiyuk (6-0, 205) is not as big as either, not as fast as Jefferson but faster than Shenault.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Aiyuk is a brilliant leaper who can high-point the ball (40 inch vertical). He is a good kick and punt return option as well.

Aiyuk had core muscle surgery on April 7, according to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network. Aiyuk, by all accounts, is a good route-runner. He can move the chains but he is very good after the catch, proving to be elite in that capacity on both the junior college and college level.

After transferring from junior college in 2018, Aiyuk had a modest season but in 2019, he had a breakout season with 65 catches for 1,192 yards and eight touchdowns.

Jordyn Brooks—inside linebacker—Texas Tech

Though he is a projected second day selection by most and a wild card in the first round equation, Brooks is a striker at the point of attack a physical player at 240 pounds. Albert Breer of SI.com reports the Saints are very interested in Brooks.

Brooks runs well for an inside linebacker, consistently in the mid 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash.

A seasoned player having played all four years for the Red Raiders, he led the team in tackles as a freshman. Brooks was a second team All-American this past season.

Brooks battled a shoulder injury in his senior season but missed just one game, showing toughness and willingness to play hurt.

Most impressively, Brooks had 20 tackles for loss. Brooks recorded 19 tackles against Oklahoma State.

Brooks is likely an early down player, as compared to an every down player, likely to be replaced on passing downs. He could be a nice compliment to the uber-athletic, every down skilled Demario Davis.

Grant Delpit, D'Andre Swift
(Photo: Jonathan Mailhes)

Grant Delpit—safety—LSU

Delpit’s stock has, at least from my perspective, dropped mysteriously.

No, he was not as productive this past season as you would have liked but injuries and playing in schemes that did not accentuate his best skills contributed.

When playing closer to the line-of-scrimmage, Delpit was very good. He has very good size (6-2, 213. Delpit had a better season in 2018 than this past year.

Still, he is an aggressive player who can tackle. With his size and physicality, Delpit is a good tackler in the box and is big and tough enough to play against big, talented tight ends.

Clearly, Delpit appears better suited to the strong safety spot. The emergence of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson as a hybrid playing in safety roles may prevent the Saints from making that investment. The same is true with the addition of Malcolm Jenkins so Delpit to the Saints appears unlikely.

J.K. Dobbins—running back—Ohio State

Start with the fact that Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton love Ohio State players. That is undeniable.

Dobbins (5-9, 209) had a good season in 2019 after an average year in 2018.

Dobbins is a good one-cut runner, in the mold of Pierre Thomas, but he has the power, for his size, to run through tackles. Dobbins never missed a game at Ohio State and played at less than 100 percent at times. Dobbins runs with good vision and is good in the screen game.

Dobbins does need work in pass protection.

Ultimately, if the Saints are planning to pay Alvin Kamara, they will likely not go for a running back in the first round. They did so with Mark Ingram but have not, otherwise. They also have Latavius Murray and recently re-signed Dwayne Washington.

AJ Espenesa—defensive end—Iowa

Espenesa has outstanding height (6-5) and weight (275) for a defensive end.

He is not fast and does not have a big vertical but he is a force, despite not having one overwhelming skill quality in hi repertoire. Espenesa has a good first step in his pass rush. The question surrounds his athleticism, if it will translate well enough to the NFL. Would you like him or Yetur Gross-Matos at the position as a prospect?

The Saints have a solid group with Cam Jordan, Trey Hendrickson and Marcus Davenport to work with here so they would have to love the player to go this route.

Kristian Fulton
(Photo: Terrill Weil)

Kristian Fulton—cornerback—LSU

What is not to like about Fulton?

He has the size (6-0, 197) you love in a cover corner. He has good, not great speed (4.46) in the 40-yard dash. He has good athletic and leaping ability. He has good ball skills.

Fulton made a mistake after his freshman season, tampering with a urine sample. It nearly cost him his college career.

Determined to clear his name, make good and to ensure all that he had character, Fulton doggedly pursued regaining eligibility with the help of LSU and Ed Orgeron.

Fulton eventually prevailed.

Having gotten to know him and having done many of his games in high school at Archbishop Rummel, my experience is that Fulton is a really good young man who made one bad decision.

Despite being away from the game for over a year, Fulton immediately earned a starting job upon his return, illustrating his immense ability.

Fulton is a very good cover corner, versatile enough to play inside or outside. He tackles well enough. Though he had just two interceptions, he defended 21 passes.

His interception in the national championship game against Clemson which was negated by a bogus pass interference call illustrated how good he is in coverage and his ball skills.

Fulton is very good in press coverage and can play solidly enough in off coverage.

Yetur Gross-Matos—defensive end—Penn State

Gross-Matos is athletic and competitive, though he lacks a go-to move, just yet, in his pass rush arsenal.

Like Cam Jordan, Gross-Matos can hold the point of attack against the run and can be a solid pass rusher, able to play every down. He had 35 tackles for loss, including 17.5 sacks in his last two seasons with the Nittany Lions. He played well against Ohio State.

Gross-Matos is rangy (6-5, 266) and can disrupt passing lanes with his size. He has long arms to bat passes down and to keep blockers off of him.

Gross-Matos had a hazing accusation to deal with from January but his coaches have praised his character and leadership skills immenstly.

Tee Higgins—wide receiver—Clemson

Higgins has played at the highest level for an elite program. A starter for two years and having played three years with the Tigers, he is ready for the NFL.

Higgins caught 135 passes for 2,448 and 27 touchdowns. He is a real weapon in the red zone, with his size (6-4, 216) as the biggest of the projected first-round receivers. His 27 touchdown receptions are tied with DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins for the most touchdown catches in Clemson history.

Higgins has played virtually every position in the receiver tree, an advantage. His size can overwhelm smaller corners. He runs under control and can go up over just about anyone to make catches, though he is not as physical as some. His speed and ability to separate concern a few observers.

Austin Jackson—tackle—USC

It stands to reason that the Saints are set at tackle with Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead.

That said, if a player is too good to pass up, you don’t worry about what you have, only what you will have for years to come.

Austin Jackson of USC has the measurables (6-5, 322). He moves well for a big man. His grandfather played for the Green Bay Packers.

Jackson played as a reserve as a freshman for the Trojans and became a starter as a sophomore, starting his last 25 games.

What everyone seems to like about Jackson is that he is a developing player whose best football may be in front of him.

Jackson is athletic and what the Saints and others may like is that he may be able to move to guard at the NFL level. Jackson has quickness and bends well for his size. He needs to develop more from a technique perspective, an illustration of the raw aspect of his ability.

Most have Jackson as a late first round to early second round selection.

Justin Jefferson
(Photo: Terrill Weil)

Justin Jefferson—wide receiver—LSU

Another local star from Destrehan, Jefferson was a virtual afterthought in recruiting. Ed Orgeron made a great decision to take him.

Jefferson has it all—size, speed, a good catch radius, toughness and the ability to shake tackles and make yards after the catch.

From 54 catches for 875 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, Jefferson was sensational in 2019 with 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 111 catches tied for first in the nation.

The SEC was so loaded with receivers (particularly LSU and Alabama) that Jefferson only made second team All-SEC but don’t be fooled. If you watched him, you know what Jefferson is capable of.

Jefferson plays bigger than he is (6-1,202). He runs well and ran very well at the NFL Scouting Combine, helping boost his stock more. He has a nearly 38 inch vertical jump which gives him outstanding ability to high-point passes and has good hands.

Jefferson is the picture-perfect slot receiver you are looking for but he has the ability to play outside as well.

Jefferson gets off the line of scrimmage quickly, enabling him to evade defenders. He is strong enough to get physical against press coverage. He is a capable to solid blocker.

Jaylon Johnson—cornerback—Utah

Like Kristian Fulton, Johnson has good corner size (6-0, 193). He runs well enough, not quite as fast to Fulton but close, overall. He has good leaping ability as well.

Johnson showed toughness, playing through a torn labrum this past season. He underwent surgery in March to repair it, which may provide some cause for pause among potential suitors.

Johnson is smart, an honor roll student. Johnson is strong in press coverage and he possesses good ball skills. Johnson played in 27 games in three seasons and had seven interceptions and defended 21 passes.

Jordan Love—quarterback—Utah State

He has the size you love in quarterback (6-4, 224).

He has the arm you are looking for, able to make the throws outside of the hashmarks and vertically. He has the ability to escape pressure and use his legs to make positive yards.

Love is, if you will pardon the pun, one of those love or hate players.

I have read both ends of the equation.

If you watched Love in 2018, you loved him. If you watched him in 2019, the love likely turned to mixed emotions.

Love went from 32 touchdown passes and only six interceptions in 2018 to just 20 in 2019. Additionally, he threw 17 interceptions last season. Love completed 61 percent of his passes in his three seasons with the Aggies.

The pluses are obvious.

Love has great size, presence in the pocket, a good throwing motion, a good arm and mobility. He sees the field well when moving out of the pocket. He holds many Utah State records, including the most total yardage in program history.

The questions surround his decision making and accuracy.

Denzel Mims—wide receiver—Baylor

Mims is the biggest of the possible first round receivers, along with Tee Higgins, who could possibly be available at No. 24 in the draft.

Mims (6-3, 207) runs very well for his size, timed in under 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. His leaping ability (38.5) is huge.

Mims is a long strider, looking even taller as he is on the field. He has a huge catch radius. Despite his size, he may not be as adept at getting off of press coverage or may not be as physical as his size suggests.

Mims is seasoned, having played all four years at Baylor and having started his last three seasons.

He caught 186 passes for 2,925 yards and 28 touchdowns. Sean Payton has been known to like big receivers.

Kenneth Murray—linebacker—Oklahoma

Murray has the ability to play inside or even outside, on the weakside, in the NFL.

He is big (6-2, 241). He is fast (4.5 in the 40-yard dash). He is athletic and can really jump (38 inch vertical).

Murray is, as we say, put together. He is big, fast, impressive looking. His range is outstanding.

Murray was a star from the start at Oklahoma, earning freshman All-American honors.

Murray recorded 36.5 tackles for loss, including 9.5 sacks for the Sooners in three seasons. He was in on an amazing 155 tackles in 2018.

The character issue is sky high as well. Murray is the son of a preacher who has helped significantly in the development of three adopted siblings who have special needs.

Murray is frequently compared to Patrick Queen of LSU and the duo is ranked nearly even by draft analysts. The choice is a 3-year player over a player who has played less than two seasons but is a rising star. It also includes two players with excellent range, one clearly an outside player (Queen) while the other is more of a hybrid (Murray).

Najee Harris, Patrick Queen
(Photo: Terrill weil)

Patrick Queen—outside linebacker—LSU

Other than Love, Queen is the player you may get the most varied opinions on.

Queen is fast, dynamic. He can really run to the football. Queen is consistently in the 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash and has run in the 4.45 range. It is obvious when you watch him pursue.

After starting four games in 2018, Queen emerged in his junior season as a key piece to Dave Aranda’s national championship defense.

The negatives are that Queen did not even begin 2019 as a starter before earning his way into the lineup and there are questions about his ability to shed blockers at the point of attack with his size (6-0, 229).

What you love about Queen is how he has made a mercurial rise, not unlike former Jesuit star Debo Jones of the Tigers, now of the Falcons. Though not quite as fast as Jones, Queen is a similar player.

He was at his best late in the season against the best competition, including Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson. His speed will allow him to play every down with his ability to cover running backs and even tight ends in pass coverage.

Cesar Ruiz—offensive lineman—Michigan

If you view Ruiz as a center, you pass, if you are the Saints, due the presence of Erik McCoy.

If you view him as a guard, he could be intriguing, particularly with Larry Warford’s contract expiring at season’s end.

Ruiz (6-3, 307) started at right guard as a freshman before moving to center. Ruiz is quick and a very solid run blocker. Ruiz can get low with his flexibility. Like McCoy, there are questions about his reach but McCoy has erased those doubts.

Ruiz played against good competition and his versatility is attractive.

Laviska Shenault—wide receiver—Colorado

Shenault has running back skills for a wide receiver as a physical player (6-1, 227) who will battle for position and battle for extra yards.

He has solid speed but not separation speed for his size. He will fight you for everything, a trait quarterbacks trust and coaches and quarterbacks love. Shenault has very good hands and he played both inside and outside for the Buffaloes.

Injury concerns are an issue.

Shenault had surgery on his labrum and surgery on his toe while at Colorado.

Those surgeries came prior to his final season at Colorado and he missed some time.

Shenault was brilliant in 2018 with 86 catches for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for five scores. In 2019, Shenault dropped off to 56 catches for 764 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for two scores.

AJ Terrell—cornerback—Clemson

Another player from a great program, Terrell has great size (6-1, 195). The Junior also runs well (4.4 range) in the 40-yard dash. Terrell played against the best receivers on opposing teams.

The last memory of Terrell was watching JaMarr Chase of LSU humble him in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Of course, Chase was the top receiver in the country but that could factor in with some suitors. His tackling is just okay but he is a player certainly worth paying attention to.

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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

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