WLOX Press Box: Saints 2015 draft preview

WLOX Press Box: Saints 2015 draft preview

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - It's a goal that many work their whole lives toward. This week, 256 athletes will be that much closer to realizing their dreams of becoming a professional football player.

The draft means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For playoff teams, it could mean that one missing piece to help put you over the edge. For others, it means continuing the work of building a winner through young, untested talent.

For the New Orleans Saints, it means finding replacements for the big pieces traded away in the off season, while also solidifying a less than stellar defense. Since the end of the 2014 season, Who Dat nation has continued to find itself saying goodbye to some key pieces to the 2009 Super Bowl champion squad.

Despite the release of all-purpose running back Pierre Thomas, and the trade of tight end Jimmy Graham, I've heard no shortage of complaints. But what most of the people I've spoken to haven't been realizing is that the additions to the squad have far outweighed the subtractions over the past few months.

Center Max Unger, who the Saints received in exchange for Graham, is an All-Pro offensive lineman that not only has the ability to protect 36-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, but dominate as the anchor of the line. The more help Brees has as he gets older, the better.

Next, you have the signing of Tim Hightower, who, while he has been out of the league with ACL damage since 2011, is a bigger, more durable version of Pierre Thomas. In four NFL seasons, Hightower has only coughed up the football eight times in 523 carries. That is good news for Saints head coach Sean Payton, whose team was 31st out of 32 teams regarding turnover differential (-13), trailing only the Oakland Raiders.

In 2007, Hightower arguably had his most productive season with the Arizona Cardinals when he rushed for 736 yards on 153 attempts. His opportunities will be scarce with Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram already in the New Orleans backfield, but he is definitely a solid addition nonetheless.

Cornerback Brandon Browner will also suit up for the black and gold during the 2015 season. Browner, who most recently anchored a championship Patriots defensive backfield, has actually been a member of the past two Super Bowl champion teams, as he played for the Seahawks in 2013.

So, if Browner sticks to the pattern, that would bring the Lombardi trophy back to New Orleans this season. Right?

While the additions through signing and trades help, they won't fill all the holes. For that, we need to look to the draft. The Saints are in the envious position of having a draft position high enough to be worth something in a trade, and low enough to steal a hidden gem, which there are several in this year's draft class.

For the sake of time, I will look at the Saints first three picks. I am assuming they stay at the 13th position in the draft order with their 1st round pick. The Saints are clearly not in the market for a starting Quarterback at this moment, so while that excludes them from the gaggle of teams looking to move up to the first two spots, it also means they are free to move about unnoticed among the remaining top picks that are available, and they may not have to look very far.

The addition of Unger is a good start to solidifying the offensive line, but with the Saints first pick, I believe they should look just a few miles west and select Offensive Tackle La'El Collins from LSU. The 6'4'', 305-pound Collins is a solid pass blocker who has the ability to stunt or defend against a bull rush. While he needs work on his run blocking, he is certainly a smart move to protect Brees, who was sacked 29 times in 2014.

If Collins is not available at 13, Alabama safety Landon Collins is certainly worth a look for a team that gave up the fifth-most points in the league last season. Landon Collins had more than 100 tackles in his junior year at Alabama, and would be an excellent protégé for the recent champion addition Browner. Either way, it would make sense for the Saints' first-round pick to be named Collins.

The Saints also have the 31st pick in the first round as part of the Graham trade. While there is speculation that Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty could be on Sean Payton's radar, this pick could be packaged in a trade. Drew Brees may have lost a step, but I don't know if it's necessarily time to draft his future replacement.

The second round brings with it the first real question of strategy. The loss of deep-threat wide receiver Kenny Stills leaves the Saints a bit short on the outside. There is one wide receiver who, if he makes it out of the first round, would be well worth a trade up. For this reason, I think the Saints should use the 78th pick they obtained from Miami, and their 44th pick in the second round, to trade up and steal Dorial Green-Beckham from Oklahoma.

Green-Beckham may be a bit of a project since he was forced to sit out the 2014 season after transferring from Missouri. But he showed his worth at Mizzou with 59 receptions for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore. Green-Beckham ran a 4.49 40-yard dash, and could add the deep threat Brees needs opposite second-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Having used the second of the Saints' two third-round picks to obtain Green-Beckham, that leaves only the 75th pick.

The loss of Jimmy Graham has been one of the biggest reasons for Saints fans' disdain this offseason, but I think there could be another Jimmy waiting in the wings. His name is Tyler Kroft, who can be a useful blocker in the run game but also showed decent receiving skills. The 6'6", 235-pound tight end hauled in 70 catches for 901 yards in his four years at Rutgers University.

Kroft is one of the top rated tight ends in the draft, but with a fourth-round projection, I think the Saints could raise some eyebrows by taking him midway through the third round.

The draft is an exciting time filled with wheeling and dealing, ups and downs, cheers and jeers, etc. It's almost here. In just over a day, more than 200 lives will be changed forever.

At that point, it'll be up to them to show that they deserve the risk that comes with calling out a name on draft day.

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