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Sunday, September 16, 2018



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Contending Saints enter draft looking for final touches

Contending Saints enter draft looking for final touches

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has been around long enough to appreciate the fleeting nature of success in the NFL, particularly as it relates to draft bonanzas and busts.

Last year, the Saints had one of the best drafts in franchise history and nearly wound up in the NFC title game because of it.

Loomis only wishes past success guaranteed future results. But he knows better.

"Nothing that we did last year gives us entitlement to anything going forward," Loomis said. "We have to look at ourselves with a critical eye and be just as diligent and innovative as we were a year ago."

One immediate reason why the 2018 draft isn't likely to produce 2017-like results is the number of picks.

A variety of trades, highlighted by the decision to ship receiver Brandin Cooks to New England, helped New Orleans accumulate five picks in the first three rounds last year.

Each one of them would up starting, and two — cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara — wound up being defensive and offensive rookies of the year, marking the first time in half a century that both played for the same team.

"The unfortunate thing for us is that we have two picks in the first three rounds and not five like last year," Loomis said. "So, it's not going to be the same by nature of volume."

The good news is the Saints head into the draft already looking like one of the NFC's prime contenders.

Seemingly ageless quarterback Drew Brees, who turned 39 in January, is back to lead an offense that ranked second in the NFL last season.

And his receiving group appears to have been upgraded with the addition of restricted free agent Cameron Meredith, who led Chicago in receiving two seasons ago, but missed last season with a knee injury. New Orleans also brought back tight end Ben Watson, who had the best year of his career receiving with Brees in 2015.

The Saints also used free agency to strengthen their defense with safety Kurt Coleman, cornerback Patrick Robinson and linebacker Demario Davis.

Yet one key area that hasn't been addressed is the pass rush, particularly from the edge. That raises the odds that the Saints will draft a pass rusher if he's graded among the top of the players remaining on the club's draft board when it's their turn to pick.

"I don't think we've done everything we've set out to do" in free agency, Loomis said.

"You're always striving to be able to select someone that, at the time we're picking, is hopefully the highest graded guy on your board. Typically what happens is you'll have three or four in the same vicinity. Then position comes into play."

DEALING OUT

Because the Saints are in position to contend now, and given the narrowing window to win it all with Brees, New Orleans could seize an opportunity to trade draft picks for veterans.

The key is whether the Saints can create enough room under the salary cap, through restructuring or otherwise, to add more established veterans.

But if there's a chance to deal for a proven pass-rusher to complement Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, that option will have to be considered seriously.

BEEFING UP

While the Saints' starting offensive line is intact and potentially a strength, there's not a lot of depth in the event of a key injury. The Saints brought back veteran Jermon Bushrod, who started at left tackle and won a Super Bowl with New Orleans in the 2009 season.

But he's played more at guard in recent seasons as he's approached the latter stage of his career.

As expected, New Orleans lost its best, most versatile backup lineman, Senio Kelemete, during free agency to a team (Houston) that was ready to make Kelemete a starter. So, adding a promising young lineman would make sense.

TEMPTING TARGET

The Saints hoped the signing of tight end Coby Fleener two years ago would give the Saints offense a semblance of what it lost when the club traded tight end Jimmy Graham. Fleener has made some big plays, but hasn't been consistent and missed the end of last season with a concussion. If a top tight end prospect is available when the Saints are on the clock, don't be shocked to see him in black and gold.

HITS, MISSES AND BARGAINS

The Saints have drafted very well the past two years. In addition to Lattimore and Kamara, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (picked 32nd), safety Marcus Williams (second round) and linebacker Alex Anzelone (third round) all became rookie starters in 2017.

Only Anzelone's season was cut short by injury.

In 2016, the Saints drafted starting tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, as well as top receiver Michael Thomas and starting strong safety Vonn Bell. Rankins, a star at Louisville, was a good bet in the first round, but Onyemata, a Nigerian national who learned to play American-style football during college in Canada, was a high-value find in the fourth round.

Their lowest-value pick in recent years came in 2015, when they selected linebacker Stephone Anthony late in the first round with a pick received as part of the Graham trade. He's no longer with the club.

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