New Orleans Saints Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville – Round 1
The Saints have been awful on defense for years, and their pass defense, in particular, has been terrible. New Orleans needed to improve its ability to cover, but also had to get better at putting pressure on the quarterback. There was little doubt that the Saints were going to address their defense in the first round, and they were able to land the top natural three-technique in the 2016 NFL Draft with Rankins. In time, he should help improve New Orleans’ ability to put pressure on the quarterback.

Rankins was a solid interior pass-rusher in college and had an excellent week at the Senior Bowl. The 6-foot-1, 299-pounder used his speed to fire by guards and get a lot of wins in the one-on-ones. His height gives him natural pad level and makes him a very nice fit as a three-technique pass-rusher. Rankins also has functional strength to fight off blocks and hold his ground. General managers and scouts told me that their evaluations said that Rankins’ tape wasn’t as good as his Senior Bowl performance, but teams other than the Saints were rating him in the No. 10-20 range on their draft boards. Thus, he wasn’t a reach in the first round.

The Saints taking a three-technique in the first round was a bit curious because they run a 3-4 defense. However, Rankins played a variety of techniques in college. Aside from being a three-technique in a 4-3, he also played nose tackle and defensive end in 3-4 sets. Rankins has nice versatility for New Orleans. I would imagine that his main role will be rushing the passer as a three-technique in the sub-package nickel defense that teams are playing the majority of their snaps now. Rankins will benefit from having Cam Jordan next to him, and they could form a tough duo. It may take a year or two for Rankins to develop to beat NFL offensive linemen, but I think he will be a solid starter for the Saints before too long.

Most Likely To Bust

Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State – Round 3
The Saints continued to work on improving their pass defense by taking Bell in the third round. Bell was expected to go in the second round, and there were even some projections of him going late in the first round, so from a value perspective, he could be a steal. However, I have some concerns about Bell transitioning to the NFL and New Orleans’ ability to develop him.

Bell (5-11, 205) was an interesting evaluation because he had a tremendous sophomore season with six interceptions with 92 tackles and six passes broken up. As a junior, he seemed to be protecting himself and wasn’t the same player. Bell had with two interceptions, 65 tackles and nine passes broken up in 2016. He is a solid coverage safety, but I think he is a bit undersized for tackling as a pro.

The Saints have put a lot of resources into their secondary in recent years, yet their pass defense has been awful. I think coaching and development could be a problem there, and that could hurt Bell. He also is behind veterans like Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Thus, Bell could have a hard time seeing the field. Of the Saints’ early round picks, I think Bell has the most bust potential.

Potential Boom Pick

Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State – Round 2
Early in the draft process, a scout from a receiver-needy team asked me who I thought the best wide receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft was. I responded by saying Will Fuller and Michael Thomas. I said it depended on what a team needed in terms of size and speed at the position, but to me, those were the two best wideouts in my opinion after I watched around 200 college games last season.

In 2015, Thomas had 56 receptions for 781 yards and nine touchdowns. He could have produced a lot more, but Ohio State’s passing game never got into a rhythm with changing quarterbacks, a strong running game led by Ezekiel Elliott, and other spread-option plays for Braxton Miller. Thomas (6-2, 212) has size, yet also has functional speed to get vertical. He is a dangerous weapon as an outside receiver working the sideline on back-shoulder and jump balls. Thomas also is a gritty, competitive receiver who loves to win. If he had played in a passing offense, he could have had much bigger totals like the ones produced by first-round receivers like Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson and Fuller.

I think that Thomas is a great fit for Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense. With Brandin Cooks drawing attention on the other side of the field or from the slot, Thomas should see plenty of one-on-ones against non-No. 1 cornerbacks. He will bring size to the Saints’ receiving corps and is a natural replacement for Marques Colston. It wouldn’t surprise me if Thomas turns into a No. 1-caliber receiver for New Orleans.

Future Depth Player

David Onyemata, DL, Manitoba – Round 4
I know sources from a few teams that really liked Onyemata. Teams loved the size, strength and speed that he put on display at the East-West Shrine. The offensive linemen really struggled to block him. At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Onyemata carries his weight well and doesn’t look that heavy. He is a raw player coming from Canada and needs development. Onyemata does have a lot of athletic versatility though. At his size, he could play a variety of techniques up front in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Onyemata may never be a starter, but he could easily be a valuable backup and rotational player for New Orleans.

Walt’s 2016 NFL Draft Grades:

12. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville B Grade
This isn’t a great pick by any means, but it’s definitely a solid one. Sheldon Rankins was expected to go in the 12-16 range, so this is obviously the top end of it. The Saints spoke about their dire need at three-technique defensive tackle at length during the offseason, so it’s hardly a surprise that they pulled the trigger on the athletic Rankins, who should be able to provide an immediate boost to New Orleans’ horrid defense. Generating a pass rush on Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston is crucial, and Rankins should help with that.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

47. Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State B+ Grade
I’m sure many expected the Saints to select an edge rusher, a linebacker or a defensive back, but a receiver was needed as well. With Marques Colston gone, the only options Drew Brees had at receiver were Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead. A No. 2 wideout was needed, and Michael Thomas was seen as one of the better receivers available heading into the second round. This is another solid selection from New Orleans.

61. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State A Grade
The Saints are making some solid picks in the draft this year, and this one certainly qualifies. It’s actually New Orleans’ best choice, just based solely on a value perspective. Bell was projected by some to be chosen at the end of the first round, or perhaps at the top of the second frame. It was a surprise to see him fall this far, but the Saints won’t complain, as Bell adds much-needed depth to the secondary.

120. David Onyemata, DE, Canada D Grade
Did the Saints mean to move up for David Onyemata? Did they hit the “trade up” button instead of the “trade down” button? That’s my explanation for this. Onyemata had a solid East-West Shrine week, but I haven’t heard any team ranking him as a fourth-round prospect. The Saints probably could’ve moved down and still acquired him. He’s a project.

237. Daniel Lasco, RB, California A- Grade
Daniel Lasco blew up the Combine, testing as one of the top running backs in his class. Still, it apparently wasn’t enough to get him out of the seventh round, as he simply couldn’t stay healthy at California. If Lasco can become more durable, he could have a future as a third-down back in the NFL. He may have trouble making the Saints’ final roster in his first year, however. Still, the upside makes him worth it in Round 7.

2016 NFL Draft Team Grade: C+ . Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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