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Should Saints Target “The Next Rickey Jackson” in the Draft?

Photo courtesy of CSNPhilly.com

"The Dome Patrol". The mere mention of that term for fans of the New Orleans Saints is one of great reverence, especially for those who are old enough to remember what NFL historians consider the greatest collection of linebackers ever to play together on one team.

The leader of the Dome Patrol of course was Rickey Jackson, who was the only member of the group to eventually get elected into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2010. But Jackson's path to the NFL and New Orleans actually began on the night of December 29th, 1980 in Jacksonville, Florida.

That night, a "star was born".

In the 1980 Gator Bowl, the Pittsburgh Panthers faced off against the South Carolina Gamecocks, and while most fans watching at home on television (including myself, then a 13-year old teenager) had tuned in to see either Pitt All-American defensive end Hugh Green or South Carolina RB and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, it was another player on the Pitt defense who "stole the show".

"Blowing up" and then blowing right past offensive linemen with the greatest of ease.

Making a tackle on the Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers in the backfield.

A sack. A bone-jarring hit here, a broken-up pass there.

ABC Network commentator Keith Jackson even commented later after the game that he had gotten tired of having to repeatedly say the young man's name over and over again.

He was literally EVERYWHERE.

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The young man's name?

Rickey Jackson.

The game ended up being a "blow out" (33-9 in favor of Pitt), but it was Jackson's performance that caught the eye not only of NFL scouts, but also the eye of former NFL head coach Bum Phillips; who had just been fired earlier that day by the Houston Oilers.

Phillips would remember that dynamic young man who was all over the field that night, when he eventually was hired to be the new head coach and general manager of the New Orleans Saints a few weeks later on January 22nd, 1981.

The Saints were coming off one of the worst seasons in Pro Football history the year before when they had gone 1-15 (the infamous season where Saints fans wore paper bags on their heads in protest of the team's dismal performance) and Phillips was looking to rebuild the Saints literally "from the ground up".

A few months later in the 1981 NFL Draft, a total of 50 other young Division 1 college athletes came off draft boards before the Saints were up for their 2nd pick of the 2nd round (#51 overall).

Phillips -- who had just come from coaching All-Pro RB Earl Campbell at Houston -- chose another player from that 1980 Gator Bowl game a few months prior when he took the Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers of South Carolina with the first pick of the draft; and obviously because he planned to utilize Rogers in the same manner that he had used Campbell with the Oilers (which he did).

Photo courtesy of Rick Stewart, AP

Phillips notably took Rogers (although no one actually even realized it at the time) ahead of North Carolina linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who would subsequently be taken by the New York Giants with the 2nd overall pick and became one of the greatest NFL players of all time.

But we can "forgive" Phillips for passing on Lawrence Taylor since he remembered that kid from Pitt; that same kid who had been all over the field that night and was still sitting on the board after he had taken University of Nebraska strong safety Russell Gary with his initial 2nd round pick.

With that 51st pick in the draft, Phillips chose Rickey Jackson.

Though Lawrence Taylor would go on to become one of the most feared defensive players in the League's long and storied (now 96 years) history, Jackson didn't do too bad himself --- becoming a dominant player in his own right and the perfect fit for Phillips' successful 3-4 defensive scheme; once he successfully converted Jackson into a "stand-up" outside linebacker after he had played with his "hand in the dirt" as a 4-3 college defensive end at Pitt.

It was the same scheme that he had brought over with him from the Oilers and from the days that made him one of the greatest high school coaches of all time from the state of Texas (the same scheme taught to him as an assistant on Bear Bryant's early 1960's teams at Texas A&M, before "The Bear" himself would move on and become a college coaching legend at Alabama).

It's the same defensive scheme still used today by Phillips' son Wade Phillips, now a legendary coaching assistant in his own right (who just recently was hired as the new defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams).

And in a 2010 interview with NOLA.com / The Times Picayune not long before his death, Phillips recalled that young man from Pitt who he had chosen to build that same scheme for his Saints defense around.

Photo courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

"Rickey was the kind of player who could get better as the game went along.He was a good enough football player that he could remember a play they ran in the clutch and expect it when they ran it again. He was a natural pass rusher. And he was playing at a position that a pass rusher could excel at, which in those days was in a 3-4 (at) linebacker. A lot of times they'd have a back trying to block him, and a back just couldn't even slow him down."

"He was a great run player, as well as a great pass defender and pass rusher. A lot of people are graded highly at in one or two, but not all three. He'd cover a tight end or a running back, he could do anything and still react up to the screens. He was a good mental football player."

Long story short: Jackson was what we now refer some 36 years later in the year 2017 as a "game changer".

Okay, but what does this have to do with the Saints right NOW, you ask?

Well, plenty as it turns out.

That's because there is a player in next month's 2017 NFL Draft who possesses eerily similar traits to the ones described above by Bum Phillips of the legendary Rickey Jackson, that will more than likely be available to the Saints when they pick at #11 overall in the first round.

And that young man's name is Haason Reddick of Temple University.

If you're a Saints fan over the age of 45 (give or take), the similarities of Reddick to Jackson some 36 years ago are undeniable.

Making plays everywhere on the gridiron.

Blowing up RB's in the backfield.

Penetrating offensive lines with the greatest of ease to gain unadulterated access to the opposing team's QB. "Hanging" with speedy RB's and faster than average TE's in pass coverage. A relentless "motor" and an undeniable passion for the game for a full 60 minutes.

Reddick NEVER takes a play 'off'. He goes 100% all out, during every single second of the contest from the opening whistle to the sound of the final gun.

Laying it all out on the line, win or lose. Rain or shine.

Blood, sweat, and maybe even a few teardrops.

Just like that kid from Pitt all of those years ago.

Now make no mistake about it, making comparisons like this one don't always turn out to be completely accurate; and just because one player 'reminds' you of another player and particularly one of a different time or era, the talent doesn't always translate from one level (college) to the next (pros).

And if you're reading this as an 'older' Saints fan, his "style" of play might not bring the enduring image of Rickey Jackson of the 1980's Saints teams or "The Dome Patrol", immediately to your mind.

So me telling you that Reddick is "the next Rickey Jackson" is honestly treading some dangerous ground.

But however.....

The ability to completely dominate and take over games defensively like Jackson did for the Saints, is something Reddick did plenty of during his career at Temple.

The Saints undoubtedly NEED more difference makers (or "game changers" if you prefer), in their front seven on defense --- and Reddick has what can only be described as a rare and unparalleled blend of size and speed that could translate rather nicely to playing the "Will" LB in the Saints' current 4-3 scheme.

Yes, the Saints already have Dannell Ellerbe at the "Will" position, when the injury-prone 31-year old veteran can actually remain healthy enough to stay on the field.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

And just like Jackson did, Reddick played with his "hand in the dirt" at Temple as a defensive end, but also can rush off the outside edge as a "stand-up" LB. Reddick starred as an undersized edge 'rush end' for the Owls in 2016, recording 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks before coaches put him back at the linebacker position for the Senior Bowl.

Additionally, as a player who originally began his college career as a 'walk on' defensive back before "bulking up" to move to the Owls defensive line; Reddick has the rare / unique capability of being able to cover RB's and TE's in pass coverage very well --- something the Saints defense has failed miserably at doing for the past several seasons.

Reddick, who "wowed" coaches and scouts during that Senior Bowl week in Mobile in late January, and then once again at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month; has now seen his stock soar from an early 2nd Round projection to possibly high as the early to mid 1st Round.

In fact, it was ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. who just recently 'mocked' Reddick to the Saints with the #11 pick in his latest Mock Draft.

Said Kiper:

"No prospect has risen as much during the pre-draft process as Reddick has. He was fantastic at the Senior Bowl, and he was one of the MVPs of the combine, with a 4.52 40, 36.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-1 broad jump. Reddick's value is in his versatility -- he could play inside or outside in a 4-3 or 3-4, with his hand in the dirt or playing on his feet in space."

"The Saints have made an effort to improve their 31st-ranked defense in free agency, re-signing Nick Fairley and bringing in A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o, and Alex Okafor, and Reddick (6-1, 237) would probably play outside in New Orleans' 4-3."

Reddick's biggest strength is his versatility. This is a young man who can play defensive end, outside linebacker, and even the "Mike" / middle linebacker position if pressed into duty. That's how much of a talent he really is.

And the fact that he's a superb athlete, a solid tackler and has a quick 'first step' off the snap of the ball that makes him equally adept at "eating up" QB's, puts him squarely in the category of what NFL scouts would refer to "immediate impact" players in this Draft class.

Does he have weaknesses?

Of course he does, and virtually every prospect has a wide variety of things that he can always do better.

In Reddick's case, he certainly can improve in the strength department, and he will permanently be hindered by his size (he has "small arms" -- 32 1/8 inches -- meaning that he won’t ever completely overwhelm you with power) throughout the future of his upcoming NFL career.

But the bottom line is that like many other players in the past (like a Rickey Jackson) that possessed the same tenacity that Reddick brings with each and every play, Reddick has the potential to become a special player that someday can separate himself and "stand out" from the rest.

Just like the kid from Pitt back in that unforgettable 1980 Gator Bowl, all of those years ago.

The question then becomes: should the Saints target "the next Rickey Jackson" in next month's Draft?

One thing is for certain --- they'd be crazy not to.........

 

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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