Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saints Draft 2009: Can They Have Their King Cake and Eat It Too?

General managers can be defined by whom they select in the first round and how a player contributes to the team. Team front offices can also be haunted by the opportunity costs of what they passed up, which is why many people have the mentality that teams should pick the best player available and not so much attempt to address current needs.
I tend to be of the school of thought that short of being a perennial bottom-dweller, a team should always try to address need based upon your selection position and which first-tier players are still on the board.
For example, if you’re the Detroit Lions, your needs are so great that picking the best player at any position makes sense. Picking the best quarterback alone won’t solve the problems of the NFL’s first single-season 0-16 team.
On the contrary, the New Orleans Saints, which had one of the league’s most prolific passing game since 2006, would not be inclined to pick a quarterback with their first round pick even if the best overall rated player on the board is a QB.
Teams (like the Saints) that were only a few points away in a handful of games from post-season and have a largely intact team returning for the upcoming season should pursue need first.
That the Saints go into the draft with only 4 draft picks (with their first rounder being the only first day selection) need to take need and depth into consideration.
Anyone who watched the Saints play last season are all too aware of their two biggest problems: the inability of the offense to convert on 3rd and 1 and the inability of the defense to stop their opponents on 3rd and 10.
Both were vexing and both needed to be addressed if the team wants to not just go to the Super Bowl (Arizona Cardinals) but to actually win it (Pittsburgh Steelers).
Safety is the consensus weakness position and the Saints front office wisely chose to dispense of the team’s two starting free safeties, not retaining the winner of the “2009 Fred Thomas Scapegoat Award” Josh Bullocks and releasing “runner-up” Kevin Kaesviharn.
The team replaced both safeties in free agency nabbing the coveted Darren Sharper after what for sports talk fans had been an agonizingly long pursuit and Pierson Prioleau. Both veterans are long in the tooth as Sharper has been in the league for 13 seasons and Prioleau has played for 11, so neither are long term solutions which has led to the local sports media cries for the Saints to draft Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and convert him to free-safety.
One, I’m not sold that Jenkins is the answer to the Saints’ defensive woes.
Two, he’s probably not going to be on the board by the time pick number 14 comes around. As the Saints have no selections to spare, a trade up is improbable and the Times Picayune’s sportswriters constant pegging of Jenkins as the team’s first round pick is wishful thinking.
The national sports media have largely speculated that the Saints will choose Jenkins’s fellow Buckeye Beanie Wells to pick up where the canonized by the fans and furloughed by the team Deuce McAllister left off as running back.
Unlike Jenkins, Wells will likely be available when the Saints select though I have a few reservations about picking the halfback.
One, Wells has durability issues, something that should trouble an organization whose star backs have had their contribution to the offense minimized due to serious injuries.
Second, I don’t think Wells is worth a 14th overall selection.
Third, I don’t think running back is the Saints’ most pressing need.
Fourth, and most importantly, the Saints already have the big back needed to pick up the short yards, Lynell Hamilton. The ex-San Diego State player showed his potential in the 2008 pre-season.
Part of the reason why the Saints ranked 28th in rushing yards is Sean Payton’s preference for passing over keeping the ball on the ground. If Reggie Bush stays healthy and Pierre Thomas and Hamilton are given the opportunities to run the ball, the Saints would have greater control of the game clock and giving the defense a rest.
Where the Saints really need to improve is putting pressure on opposing team’s quarterbacks. The team’s overpriced and unproductive defensive ends have not helped keeping the likes of Jeff Garcia look like Michael Vick. The team ranked 22nd in sacks with 28.
The addition of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator will help produce a much more aggressive defense; the question is does he have the right players to execute his play calls?
The Saints upgraded last season by selecting DT Sedrick Ellis and the team has a bit of depth in the position. Where I think the team is still lacking is linebacker. There’s no question that ILB Jonathan Vilma was a major pick up. However, Scott Shanle seems to be the weak-link. And at the risk of being pelted with rotten vegetables by the Black and Gold faithful, I am not totally sold on the popular Scott Fujita.
As this is a weak draft for safeties (2010 is much more promising), the Saints have a temporary fix for the current season and barring another injury-massacre, the team should be okay at cornerback with the return of last-season’s second-round pick Tracy Porter and free-agent Jabari Greer.
If I were Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, I would seek a trade-down to pick up a second round choice as there’s not much difference in the quality of players that suit the Saints’ needs between 14 and the mid-20s. A first-round swap with New England for their second-round selection (34th overall) would be most advantageous trade possible.
At the 23rd pick, there’s a decent chance USC linebacker Clay Matthews or Ole Miss defensive tackle Peria Jerry will be available with the Saints using the newly acquired high second rounder to scoop up Liberty University running back Rashad Jennings as Hamilton’s competition for the big back the Saints need to quit letting the close games, and their playoff hopes, slip away.
If in the event the Saints choose to use their 14th pick or can’t swing the deal with New England, then they should go with USC linebacker Brian Cushing or if Payton insists on an offensive player Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno and hope that unretired linebacker Dan Morgan makes it through training camp and had an impact.

Order of preferred draft options:

1) Trade with a team in the mid-twenties to get a decent second round pick and use the lower first round selection to land a) outside linebacker Clay Matthews or b) defensive tackle Peria Jerry and use the second round choice to draft running back Rashad Jennings.
2) Use 14th overall pick to select outside linebacker Brian Cushing.
3) Use 14th overall pick to select running back Knowshon Moreno.

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