After a three-year hiatus, the Saints are once again relevant.
The spike in quality of play comes after the club’s best draft since 2006. In that draft, the headliner was running back Reggie Bush. But long after Bush departed, the Saints were getting outstanding play from guard Jahri Evans and a pair of seventh-round picks, wide receiver Marques Colston and offensive tackle Zach Strief.
Eleven years later, the Saints drafted two starters in the first round. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has a chance to be the best player at that position in franchise history. Offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk has started games at both left and right tackle.
In training camp, Strief said this about Ramczyk: “The ideal scenario is for him to take over and keep the job for the next 10 years.”
In Round 3, the Saints’ three picks were running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker Alex Anzalone and pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. That third round was the best third round since 1986. That year, the Saints drafted running back Rueben Mayes, linebacker Pat Swilling and running back Barry Word.
Word went on to be a very good player in Kansas City. One year later, Swilling and Mayes were linchpins on the first Saints team to earn a playoff berth.
The 1986 draft also included offensive tackle Jim Dombrowski and running back Dalton Hilliard. The ’86 draft was the catalyst as the Saints reached the playoffs four times in a span of six seasons under head coach Jim Mora.
When Mora arrived in New Orleans in 1986, he inherited many of the players from the 1981 draft, the best in Saints’ history. That draft included future Pro Football Hall of Famer linebacker Rickey Jackson, defensive linemen Frank Warren and Jim Wilks and tight end Hoby Brenner. All four are members of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame.
After six weeks of the season, only the 5-1 Philadelphia Eagles and the 4-2 Los Angeles Rams have better point differentials in the NFC than the Saints’ plus-29.
The Saints have paid dearly for poor drafts and the bounty penalty imposed before the 2012 season. The NFL forced the club to forfeit two second-round draft picks. The Saints didn’t have a first- or second-round pick in 2012. No player from the 2014 draft is on the current roster. And, the 2015 draft, with nine selections, has been solid.
One year later, the 2016 draft yielded defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, wide receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell. Add the 2017 draft, and the Saints currently have more talented, young players on their roster in a decade.
The road to improvement isn’t complex. A basketball coach knew this, even as his peers and the media were heaping praise upon him.
Under John Wooden, UCLA won 10 NCAA basketball titles from 1964 to 1975. Wooden had many success axioms. One of his favorites was: The team with the best players usually wins.
The Saints are better, and their play is a reflection of that.
Ed Daniels is sports director of ABC26 WGNO. He can be reached at email@example.com.