It’s two days from the first round of the draft, and it’s time for me to put myself in the Saints’ front office and on the clock.
Below are seven players I think the Saints would do well to select with their allotment of picks in the May 8-10 draft. Since I’ve got the keys to the kingdom and am calling the shots (at least in this space and today), the Saints are not to trade any of their picks away.
Under my orders, the team will first take two players to strengthen the defense: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir. Then, the remaining five may boost the offense over both the short- and long-term futures: Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, Florida State center Bryan Stork, Purdue tackle Kevin Pamphile and Tulane wide receiver Ryan Grant.
Each unit finished ranked fourth in the NFL in both yards allowed and gained last year.
Regardless, here’s my staff’s reasoning behind the selections.
+Round 1, 27th overall: Outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
He showed his athleticism by posting the best vertical and broad jumps at February’s scouting combine (42 inches and 10 feet, 10 inches, respectively) as well as tearing through the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at his pro day.
He cranked out some outstanding productivity during his last two seasons with the Buckeyes, getting in on 258 tackles, 39.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 11 quarterback sacks and seven forced fumbles. He led the Big Ten in tackles and tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2013, during which he was a finalist for the Butkus Award handed out to the best linebacker in college football.
And, at 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, he’s plenty bulky.
Whether or not the Saints get Shazier, their pass-rushing depth in 2014 should be helped with the expected return of outside linebacker Victor Butler, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
However, this upcoming campaign is the last one on Butler’s two-year deal. Another outside linebacker, Parys Haralson, is also only under contract through 2014.
Shazier has the potential to be a much better NFL player than Butler and Haralson have been, and they’ve both been very serviceable.
It’s tantalizing to think of Shazier rushing passers alongside Saints players such as defensive end Cameron Jordan, whose 12.5 sacks were the fifth most in the NFL last regular season and got him to his first career Pro Bowl; outside linebacker Junior Galette, whose 12 sacks were No. 6 in the league; and defensive end Akiem Hicks, whose 56 tackles (29 solo) were the most on New Orleans’ line.
+Round 2, 58th overall/26th in round: Cornerback Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
A defense that finished fourth-from-last with 19 takeaways last year openly coveted playmakers this offseason, as was made obvious by the free-agent signing of safety Jairus Byrd, who has 22 interceptions (the most among players at his position since he entered the league in 2009), 11 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in his career.
Another player who fits that mold is the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Desir. His stock is on the rise, and he most likely won’t be available after the Saints pick in the second round.
Desir spent two seasons each at Washburn (2009-10) and Lindenwood (2012-13), both schools that compete in NCAA Division II’s Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. By the time his career was over, he was the MIAA’s all-time leader in passes broken up with 52 and was No. 2 in career interceptions with 25.
He won an award recognizing him as the best small-school defensive player in the country last year. He then logged the combine’s best broad jump (11 feet, 1 inch), cementing him as a dominant small-school player who has the physical tools it takes to contribute and succeed in the NFL — and has the kind of non-traditional back-story the coach Sean Payton-era Saints love in players.
To get better family support for his two children, his wife and himself, Desir transferred gave up his scholarship to Washburn and transferred to Lindenwood, which neighbors his St. Louis-area hometown.
Desir walked onto the team at Lindenwood; sat out a year; resumed his career; and paid his way through school by working numerous odd jobs, which he could only attend to when he wasn’t in class, studying or playing football.
He has said he cleaned up shell casings at shooting ranges. He cleaned up the sides of highways. He painted. He picked up trash, restored houses — or cleaned them.
The routine, he has convincingly said, more than prepared him for the pressure of NFL life.
+Round 3, 91st overall/27th in round: Wide receiver Kevin Norwood, Alabama
At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds with 4.48-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Norwood is adequately built and speedy enough. He’s tough, having braved a turf toe injury in 2012 to finish No. 2 in catches (29), scoring receptions (4) and receiving yards (461) for a Crimson Tide squad that won the BCS championship.
The native of nearby D’Iberville, Miss., then improved his production in 2013 with 38 grabs, 568 receiving yards and a team-high seven scores. Scouting reports say he could stand to improve his blocking and break more tackles, but the quick possession receiver would introduce some qualities the Saints’ receiving corps would welcome.
For now, at the position group, the Saints count on two receivers who helped them win Super Bowl XLIV: Marques Colston and Robert Meachem. No other Saints wideout has more than 16 games of regular-season experience, though Kenny Stills and Joe Morgan have shown lots of promise as long-ball threats.
Stills, in his second year, had 32 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie last season. He led the NFL in yards per reception (20).
Third-year player Joe Morgan sat out the 2011 and 2013 seasons with knee injuries; but, in 2012, he had three touchdowns and 379 yards on 10 grabs. His jaw-dropping 37.9 yards per catch would’ve easily been the best in the NFL if he had enough grabs to qualify for the league’s leader boards.
The Saints also have wide receiver Nick Toon, but he missed his rookie year in 2012 with a foot injury. He then had only eight catches for 68 yards in eight regular-season games last year.
+Round 4, 126th overall/26th in the round: Quarterback Aaron Murray, Georgia
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is entrenched at his position. He is the franchise’s lone Super Bowl MVP, and he’s the only player to pass for more than 5,000 yards in four separate seasons. He’s taken the Saints to the franchise’s only two NFC Championship Games; three of its five division titles; and five of its 10 playoff appearances since joining them in 2006.
But he’s 35, and the Saints said in March they’re always on the lookout for a possible successor. Therefore, they owe it to themselves to bring Murray in and begin grooming him as Brees’ heir, even with backups Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin on the depth chart.
Murray’s success as a passer while commanding a pro-style offense in the vaunted SEC is impossible to ignore. He connected on 62.3 percent of his throws for 13,166 yards. His 121 touchdowns were almost three times more than his picks (41). At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, he’s not the ideal size, but neither is Brees nor Russell Wilson, who in February led Seattle to a Super Bowl.
Many think an anterior cruciate ligament tear in late November will cost Murray the chance to be taken earlier in the draft. If so, the Saints should capitalize on that.
+Round 5, 167th overall/27th in the round: Center Bryan Stork, Florida State
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Stork was Florida State’s starting center in 2012 and 2013. He helped the Seminoles win the BCS championship last year, and in the process he earned the Rimington Trophy as the best player at his position in the nation.
At least one draft profile of Stork criticized the player for having short arms and stiff hips, and it attributed much of his success to playing next to two talented guards. Fortunately for Stork, that’s exactly what he’d have in New Orleans — Saints guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans have both been to multiple Pro Bowls.
Brian de la Puente had started at center for the Saints from 2011 to 2013 but left for the Chicago Bears in free agency. The first-string center on the Saints at the moment is Tim Lelito, who started two games New Orleans won in 2013 as a rookie at guard in place of an injured Jahri Evans.
The Saints have said he would be given the chance to win the starting job at that position in camp but would have competition either from an NFL free agent or player coming out of college. Stork should be up to the challenge.
+Round 5, 169th overall/29th in the round: Tackle Kevin Pamphile, Purdue
The 6-foot-4 1/2, 311-pound Pamphile was Purdue’s starting left tackle throughout his senior campaign in 2013. A former basketballer who played only one year of prep football, Pamphile sat out his first year at Purdue before becoming a defensive lineman in 2010.
He missed most of that year hurt and switched to offensive tackle in 2011, appearing in four games as a backup. Despite his minimal experience, Pamphile started nine games at left tackle in 2012 and manned the position again as a redshirt senior in 2013.
Pamphile commanded the attention of NFL personnel with campus pro day workout numbers mirroring those of combine standouts at his position: 4.92 and 4.94 seconds in the 40-yard dash; a 32-inch vertical leap; a 9-foot broad jump; and 25 reps on the 225-pound bench press, according to the National Football Post’s Aaron Wilson. Scouts say they were also dazzled by his basketball-rooted athleticism and fluidity in drills.
If any team can groom Pamphile, it’s the Saints, who have a penchant for taking on o-line projects.
Their starting left tackle is Terron Armstead, who they took third out of tiny Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Their starting right tackle is Zach Strief, who they used a seventh-round pick on in 2006 and took time developing until inserting him into the starting line-up in 2011. They drafted right guard Jahri Evans out of another small school, Towson, in the fourth round of the 2006 draft — he’s since been to five Pro Bowls and appeared on four Associated Press All-Pro First Teams.
+Round 6, 202nd overall/26th in the round: Wide receiver Ryan Grant, Tulane
There’s concern that Grant ran the 40-yard dash at the combine in a plodding 4.64 seconds before improving his time to around 4.5 at his pro day. He and at least one of his coaches have admitted he needs to work on his blocking by staying focused for the entire duration of games.
But he already knows the Saints’ offense, and he’s got reliable hands, making him suitable to man the role Lance Moore did for so many years before he was released and relocated to Pittsburgh this offseason.
The 6-foot, 199-pound Grant played his final two years in college under coach Curtis Johnson, who oversaw the Saints’ wide receivers for six seasons until he was hired by Tulane in 2012. Johnson brought with him the offense the Saints run under Payton.
Grant had 77 catches for 1,039 yards and nine scores in 2013, helping the Green Wave reach its first bowl game since 2002. According to at least one evaluation, he impressed scouts during workouts by showing surer hands than some higher-profile receivers.
And that’s a wrap
Since I took Loomis’ job, you take mine. Send me your opinions about my draft decisions either at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.
Note: The Saints do not have a seventh-round pick this year because they traded it to San Francisco last preseason to acquire Parys Haralson. They picked up an extra fifth-round pick during the trade that sent running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia.