Saints’ success product of hiring Ireland to run draft

By Ed Daniels, Clarion Herald Sports

As Sean Payton is showered with praise over the Saints’ 6-1 start, here’s a question:

Is Payton that much different as a head coach than he was when the Saints went 7-9 for three consecutive seasons?

I say no.

Is Payton a better talent evaluator than he was when the Saints missed the playoffs for those three consecutive seasons?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Back then, the Saints were searching for the quick fix. There were the disastrous signings of safety Jairus Byrd and running back C.J. Spiller. The Saints forfeited a pair of second-round picks over the alleged bounty scandal.

And, in a stretch from 2013 through 2015, the Saints made four selections in the first round. Only one, guard Andrus Peat, is still with the team.

Since then, the Saints hired assistant general manager Jeff Ireland to run the draft, and they went back to a player procurement strategy that works: Build through the draft and supplement your roster with second-tier veteran free agents.

Free-agent linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein were good players elsewhere who became outstanding players here. But, when the Saints brought them on board, their price was affordable, and the risk was limited.

The league’s website, NFL.com likes to do what they call “draft do-overs.” That is, look at each year’s draft three years later, to get a true snapshot of how good or how poorly a team drafted.

In the 2016 draft do-over, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the Saints’ first pick, was rated 11th-best overall. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, picked No. 47 overall in the second round, vaulted to No. 12 overall.

In that same draft, the Saints picked up two additional starters, safety Vonn Bell (No. 61) and defensive tackle David Onyemata (No. 120). Bell has three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in seven games. Onyemata is part of an effective defensive tackle rotation that includes Rankins, Malcom Brown and Shy Tuttle.

The 2017 draft was historic.

For the first time since 1967, the same team had the rookie of the year on offense (Alvin Kamara) and the rookie of the year on defense (cornerback Marshon Lattimore). That draft also yielded safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.

The 2018 first pick, defensive end Marcus Davenport, has stepped up his play considerably. And, in Chicago last Sunday, rookie fourth-round pick C.J. Gardner-Johnson, No. 105 overall, was second on the team in tackles as he made his first career start.

The Saints’ 2019 first selection, second-round pick center Erik McCoy, is already a big part of one of the best offensive lines in football. Against the Bears, the Saints rushed for 151 yards, averaging 4.3 yards a carry.

And, then there’s Teddy Bridgewater. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Saints sent a third-round pick to the Jets to acquire Bridgewater.

A former first-round pick, Bridgewater started 28 games in two seasons in Minnesota before suffering a serious knee injury in August 2016. Bridgewater was a huge upgrade over Luke McCown or Chase Daniel, who are both solid backups.

So, those who are surprised by what the Saints have accomplished since Drew Brees was injured on Sept. 15 really shouldn’t be. The Saints have a young and talented roster.

And, head coach Sean Payton is, for the most part, the same coach he was three years ago.

With one big exception.

He has much better players.

Ed Daniels is sports director of ABC26 WGNO. He can be reached at edaniels@clarionherald.org.

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