Everyone has their grades for exams that haven’t been close to finished yet, because people like grades. If you want to assign grades, looking back at the 2007 t0 2009 classes, go with the teams with the most value (in terms of where and how often they drafted) and then guess, and hope you get the team that gets a starter or two from the late rounds. From 1999 to 2008, only 2% of players drafted 5th round or later started at least 8+ games in both of their first two seasons. Only 8% ended up starting at least 3 seasons during the first five years of their career. Those picks can have a giant impact on how a class looks in a few years, but good luck identifying them before we get into any games.
Instead, I’m going to focus on a team that I think is going to get the most immediate bang for the buck out of its draft. New Orleans came in without a second round pick (Bounty penalty), so they were already behind the curve. The Saints, though, were in a good position in the middle of the first round, of a defensive and line heavy draft, of having some options when they came up.
Fans always advocate trading down and getting more picks. Perhaps the Saints could have done that, since some other teams immediately after did pull trades. I think they went the right way, though, and took the #1 safety on the board, Kenny Vaccaro, of Texas. Other players may end up having longer or better careers in this draft, but I’m not sure any will have the immediate impact on a team’s fortunes. The Saints were dead last, by over 900 yards, in defensive yards allowed last year. They shattered the record for yards allowed. Any quality defensive player was going to have an impact, but New Orleans opted to go with a back end stopper instead of someone else for front seven with defensive switch to the 3-4.
Three years ago, I wrote about safeties in the draft and how they were a relatively safe pick at the top of the draft. That, coupled with the aging curve at safety, and how so many good ones are done by age 30, means it is a position that is actually pretty valuable in the draft, versus going the free agency route.
It is also a position where many of the Super Bowl teams have been strong. To the right is a summary of the pro bowlers for all of the Super Bowl teams over the last twenty years, and how frequently each position was selected. Obviously, quarterback is extremely important. Among those with two starters, like safety, defensive end, or cornerback, safety was the most frequent.
We have seen great defensive teams that have had safeties roaming the back end, from Polamalu in Pittsburgh to Ed Reed in Baltimore. Earl Thomas is an emerging star in Seattle and an integral part of a defense that is now among the league’s best. The Saints can hope that another Texas Longhorn can join that group.
Since 1990, eleven other teams that finished in the bottom quarter of the league in points allowed drafted a safety starter in the first round. Seven of those eleven teams moved into the top half in scoring defense the next year. The average improvement was from a ranking of 27.8 to 14.9.
The Saints have a large amount of ground to make up, but Vaccaro can make a huge impact with his versatility. Add in the defensive switch, which I discussed earlier this offseason, and I think the Saints have the ability to make a turnaround on defense that will be enough to make them Super Bowl contenders again in 2013. Keep in mind that in the four seasons since Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans, and the defense has ranked better than 25th in points, the Saints are 47-17 with four playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title.
New Orleans also made a move back into the third round, trading Chris Ivory to the Jets for a fourth rounder and packaging that with another pick to move up. They used it to select John Jenkins, a fireplug defensive tackle who can move into the nose tackle spot in the defensive switch. The one position in the front seven where the Saints needed another player was at nose tackle; we don’t know how the other players will translate, but at least they have bodies that look to be capable of moving to defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker. Jenkins should play an immediate role.
The Saints may not have had a lot of draft capital to work with, but I’m not sure any team did as much to improve its prospects for next year with what was available. In a loaded NFC where the West is now suddenly king and the Packers and Falcons are still among the best teams, don’t sleep on New Orleans if the defense turns around with the help of Vaccaro and Jenkins.
1 (15)- Kenny Vaccaro
3 (75)- Terron Armstead, Offensive Tackle, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
3 (82)- John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
5 (144)- Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma
6 (183)- Rufus Johnson, DE, Tarleton State
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]