Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saints Avoid Riot, Blow Opportunity in 2009 Draft

For the first time in my three trips to the New Orleans Saints’ official NFL Draft Fests, I noticed that the assembled throngs were not chanting any particular name when it came around time for the Black and Gold’s first round pick.
In 2007, the crowd huddled under the air-conditioned tent a stone-throw away from the team’s practice facility was screaming “OLSEN…OLSEN…OLSEN” (a reference to University of Miami tight end Greg Olsen who was later selected by the Chicago Bears), easily drowning out my solitary hollers for Robert Meachem.
There was a virtual consensus the following year when the Saints traded up to snag USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.
In 2009, the crowd yelled, rather demanded, not a player but a side of the line of scrimmage: DEFENSE!
And the crowd got more than a little antsy when ESPN, which had cameras trained on the player that was selected prior to the NFL commissioner’s stroll to the podium to announce a team selection, showed Ohio State running back Beanie Wells.
For a moment, it appeared Tom Benson was going to have to evacuate the Saints’ headquarters via helicopter and would have to pay a few property insurance damage deductibles. But the cameras moved on to fellow Buckeye Malcolm Jenkins, the cornerback the organization has made no secret of coveting.
Relieved that Wells was passed on though distraught my ideal pick strategy of trading down was pissed on, I slumped down into a rental folding chair and booed, not that anyone in particular noticed by disappointment.
That the team’s biggest weakness in the Sean Payton era was its secondary is hardly a secret. After 2006, they signed undersized cornerback Jason David away from Indianapolis. Well, we all know how that panned out.
In 2008, the Saints used their second round pick to land Louisiana native-Indiana cornerback Tracy Porter. Until he was sidelined with a severe wrist injury, Porter showed much promise and will likely resume his starting position in 2009. On top of Porter, the Saints also signed free-agent cornerback Aaron Glenn, though he went down quick himself.
Veteran cornerback Mike McKenzie’s 2008 season ended in game seven.
So I can understand the team’s anxiety over depth at cornerback.
But football is a contact sport. Things happen that can change your season in a single play. Just ask the Brady-less New England Patriots.
With the selection of Jenkins, the Saints are as loaded at cornerback as they are at wide receiver. After the conclusion of the ritual contract holdout by the team’s number one pick, Jenkins will compete with Porter, free-agent Jabari Greer, Randall Gay and Leigh Torrence. Oh, I almost forgot, Jason David, who I should mention is no longer #42, which is now in the possession of one Darren Sharper, the free-agent safety the team pursued after cutting its ties with Josh Bullocks, who left as a free-agent, and Kevin Kaesviharn, who left on a rail (cut).
Cornerback Usama Young might have a chance to salvage his thus far undistinguished career with the Saints in a move to safety.
The concept behind the Jenkins pick-up was to move him to free safety, where he would join Sharper and fellow FA acquisition Pierson Prilou. As neither Sharper nor Prilou are expected to be long-term solutions due to their age.
However, next season is projected to be a better draft for defensive backs (Jenkins at 14 was the first cornerback taken) and with what should go down as the best free-agency trawl by the team since 2006, particularly concerning the secondary, addressing the Saints’ relatively weak front seven seemed to be bigger priority.
That the team was picking at 14 in a rich linebacker draft further underscores the opportunity cost of going with Jenkins, to say nothing about the potential to have traded down and still left the first round with a star linebacker.
The Saints will in all probability start their first four games without their star, make that star-ting, defensive ends. Not that Will Smith, who was hobbled with a sports hernia, and Charles Grant, who has been hobbled with a severe case of lazy ass, contributed much in 2008. Their Star-Caps related suspensions come at the thinnest time of the Saints’ schedule so they’re temporary departure will at least come at a convenient time.
Aside from Ellis, there are questions at defensive tackle. Aside from the existing cast of characters that neither made the earth shake nor opposing quarterbacks, the team will have back a healthy DeMario Pressley, who was drafted last year and injured prior to the start of regular season, and the unretired Rod Coleman, who is making a comeback to pro-football after an injury in early 2007 took him out the game. Ole Miss defensive tackle Peria Jerry was still on the board when the Saints picked and a bit thereafter and would have been a sure thing. Now, the only thing certain is the Saints offensive line will have to work to keep him away from Drew Brees as he tries to break through twice a year when the Saints play the Atlanta Falcons.
Linebacker has been the position that I felt was the most critical to address in the draft. With the exception of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the Saints’ linebacker corps has been more the “Gnome Patrol” than the “Dome Patrol”. The only pre-draft additions made were the concussion-susceptible Dan Morgan’s decision to unretire (got to love this Frank-Madoff-Obama economy) and San Diego washout Anthony Waters.
Unless Gregg Williams is the MacGyver of defensive coordinators, in which he can transform low-grade linebackers into an effective defensive component, I believe the Black and Gold will be haunted by not going with a linebacker in the first round.
Coach Payton would be wise to make sure our defensive backs build up their endurance as I expect them to be doing a lot of running as opposing quarterbacks bide their time behind Saints-resistant offensive lines.
Hopefully, Jenkins will prove me wrong as he and his teammates are lifting the Lombardi Trophy in 2010.

Overall take on the draft:

Malcolm Jenkins Cornerback , Ohio State: Not to further enrage the folks at PETA for beating a dead horse, I don’t think Jenkins was the optimal choice though he was probably the best defensive back in the draft. At least depth at cornerback won’t be the same problem it was last year.

Chip Vaughn Safety, Wake Forest: Talk about overkill with the secondary. It seems Sean Payton has taken the hints about his overly offensive-minded view of the game and decided to make up for the sins of the past by overcompensating in 2010. Vaughn will join Young, Prilou and Sharper to erase the stains of Bullocks and Kaesviharn. Not a bad pick up, though this would have looked much better had the Saints gone elsewhere in round one.

Stanley Arnoux Inside Linebacker, Wake Forest: Touted as a bargain by his college head coach, Arnoux is supposed to play the weak-side, competing with Scott Shanle (who will soon become the new whipping boy for the fans), Morgan (if he makes it through training camp) and the up and coming Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Of the three defensive players selected, Arnoux might be the one to have the most immediate impact on the club if only due to his competition.

Thomas Morstead Punter, Southern Methodist: I was for the Saints picking a punter, though not this one. University of Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber is someone I’ve had my eye on since I saw the booming punts he made in the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately, his hometown pro-team grabbed him first. The Saints traded up in the same round to get Morstead, who has good leg strength (does this story sound familiar?) but tends to hold the ball a bit too long. Though one of the less appreciated aspects of this sport called FOOTball, punting determines an opposing offense’s field position. Saints might be guilty of having the right thought, just not the right player.

Winners and Losers


Gregg Williams A defensive-minded draft is a sign that Sean Payton is willing to accommodate his prized defensive coordinator and that he might just have learned that one does not win by putting him a ton of points alone.

Pierre Thomas, Lynell Hamilton, Mike Bell: If there was any doubt whether Pierre Thomas would be the team’s featured back, the lack of a drafted running back, contrary to the national sports media’s predictions, is the surest sign Thomas will start. The question is how many times will Payton actually give him the football. Though the specter of an added free-agent looms on the horizon, Bell and Hamilton live another day with an open field going into pre-season. Now to find out which of the two emerges as the big back to get those cursed 3 & 1s.


Jason David: Memories of that exhibition game against the Houston Texans has largely poisoned my view of David as the weak-link every team have not been bashful of exploiting over and over again. David was nor a bad player; rather, he was put in bad plays. The team’s massive investment in free agency and the draft for defensive backs are a sure sign that the scrappy David won’t be wearing his newly acquired #29 jersey for too long.

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