The New Orleans Saints 2017 Rookie Class has a chance to make an impact on the upcoming 2017 season like no other Saints draft class has in recent memory.
At least 4 players have a chance to become full-time starters in Week #1 at Minnesota against the Vikings on Monday Night Football; and of the 8 players drafted, at least 7 of them could see extensive action of some form, throughout the entire year.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to the team's legendary 1981 Draft, under then-new Saints head coach and general manager Bum Phillips, to find a Saints draft class that has as much "potential" impact as this year's 2017 class does.
During the 1981 season, the Saints had 8 -- count them -- eight players who would go on to become starters, although it's important to note that the Saints were coming off a League-worst 1-15 season from the year before (1980), and also that the Draft back then had 12 rounds; and not the 7 rounds that are in place now.
The eight starters were 1980 Heisman Trophy winner RB George Rogers (1st Round, #1 overall), strong safety Russell Gary (2nd Round, #29 overall), perhaps the best player in franchise history with Hall of Fame defensive end / OLB Rickey Jackson (2nd Round, #51 overall), defensive end Frank Warren (3rd Round, #57 overall), tight end Hoby Brenner (3rd Round, #71 overall), cornerback Johnnie Poe (6th Round, #144 overall), and defensive tackle Jim Wilks (12th Round, #305 overall).
Also of note in that 1981 Saints Draft Class: the late, great RB Hokie Gajan (10th Round, #249 overall) a standout RB for nearby LSU; who was also taken in that same draft and is a part of the Saints Hall of Fame for his achievements as a player, scout and radio analyst.
Now, let's face it: the 2017 Class will come nowhere close to making the impact that 1981 Class did, but it doesn't mean that the overall impact of this year's class will be any less significant.
In fact, given the Saints' current situation in a "make or break" season in the eyes of some, it could in some ways be even more so.
So with that in mind, which of the Saints' seven picks from the 2017 NFL Draft will have the "biggest impact"?
Here's my quick take on each player, and how I see them ending up once the season is in full swing.....
MARSHON LATTIMORE, #2 / OUTSIDE BOUNDARY CORNERBACK
Lattimore had a "mixed" off-season, looking very good at times in team drills when matched up in press coverage against some of the team's top WR's (including fellow Ohio State graduates Micheal Thomas and Ted Ginn, Jr.), but also struggling on a few occasions as well.
NOLA.com / The Times Picayune NFL Columist Larry Holder observed last week during the team's final Mini-Camp practice that Lattimore received more first-team practice snaps in those 3 days on Mini-Camp than he did all off-season; adding that it seems like the Saints are ready to put Lattimore "in the fire".
Holder added that Lattimore would stay on the outside boundary spot in nickel situations with P.J. Williams lining up against the slot receiver, and says that in a perfect Saints world, that’s how the cornerback spots should look in 2017: #1 CB Delvin Breaux and Lattimore on the outside, and P,J. Willams at slot CB.
I'd personally expect to see the Saints use other players at the #2 CB spot such as Williams and back-ups Sterling Moore for example, but once Lattimore is fully "broken in", the job will be his to lose.
Projection: Eventual Starting #2 / Outside Boundary Cornerback (sharing time with P.J. Williams)
RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE LEFT TACKLE (IN PLACE OF THE INJURED TERRON ARMSTEAD)
Ramczyk didn't take part in any extensive physical activities during the off-season, as he recovers from off-season hip surgery, which he appears to be 90% recovered from at this point.
But almost immediately after the injury to starting left tackle Terron Atmstead last week, NOLA.com / Times Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein reports that Ramczyk was on the field during some walkthrough snaps as the first-team left tackle during the final minicamp practice last Thursday, his first day in such a role.
Even though the Saints drafted Ramczyk to eventually replace Zach Strief after he retires at right tackle, Ramczyk was an All-Big 10 performer at left tackle during his career at Wisconsin; and the Saints are confident that the rookie will be up to the task of filling in for Armstead for the majority of 2017.
Whether he actually is or isn't, we're about to find out.
Projection: Starting Left Tackle
MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY
Of all of the players we're looking at, it's actually Williams actually who could potentially have the biggest impact of all; simply because he will provide the Saints with 2 things that they were visibly lacking with the decline of veteran player Jairus Byrd, who was recently released: TURNOVERS AND TENACITY
Williams is a noted "ball hawk" who has developed a knack for making big plays in the secondary, either by defending / knocking away passes or creating turnovers either by forcing or stripping ball-carriers or making interceptions which is aided by his incredible leaping ability and overall athleticism.
Even better yet: Williams will bring a "swagger" or an attitude to the team as well.
He earned a reputation as a feared 'hard hitter' at Utah, something that he hasn't even been able to show yet since the Saints don't finally practice in full pads for at least another 6 weeks. But it goes without saying that he'll be "laying the wood" on opponents on NFL Sundays. just as much as he'll likely be feared for his "ball hawk" abilities.
The Saints got a textbook example of a 'draft day steal' when they were able to snag Williams with the #42 overall pick; and just like the Saints were able to land linebacker Rickey Jackson of the University of Pittsburgh with the #51st overall pick in that famous 1981 Draft, Williams potentially in the future could be the next Saints Hall of Famer that was taken in the 2nd Round.
Projection: Starting Free Safety
ALVIN KAMARA, #3 RUNNING BACK (A.K.A. "SCAT BACK")
Kamara had some of the 'highlight reel' moments of last week's Mini-Camp, including a play where he figuratively "broke" veteran free agent inside linebacker Mantai Te'o's ankles; as Te'o attempted to pick up the rookie in pass coverage.
That play and several more like it in which Kamara showed off his speed and elusiveness, was just yet one more reminder of exactly why the Saints traded back up into the early part of Round 3 of the recently-completed Draft and gave up a 2nd Round pick in next year's 2018 Draft , to take him.
Even with Kamara having only been in the fold with the team for about 2 months so far, it's become evident that the Saints have big plans ahead for Kamara and his role within the Saints offense; as he assumes the old spot once previously held by former Saints RB's Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles and in the process, formally restores that element to the team's offensive attack.
It's the very same element that's been so noticeably missing from the Saints offense for the last few seasons since Sproles' departure during the 2014 off-season when the team traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles; and with all due respect to the player who was in that role before Kamara's arrival in veteran Travaris Cadet --- there's absolutely no question whatsoever that Kamara will definitely provide that dimension going forward.
Whenever the Saints are pounding the rock and establishing the power running game, you'll see a lot of veterans Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. But whenever the Saints need a "change of pace" or when the situation calls for it (on passing downs), you can expect a 'heavy dose' of Kamara.
Projection: #3 RB / designated "Scat Back"
ALEX ANZALONE, "WILL" / WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER
Anzalone quickly established himself with the coaching staff by becoming a fixture in the Saints starting defensive line-up during team drills at Min--Camp; as he received a good portion of snaps with the 1st unit while displaying his versatility to play all 3 LB spots.
But besides his versatility, it became fairly obvious during Mini-Camp that he was selected for 2 important reasons: his speed and ability to quickly cover a lot of ground by moving 'sideline to sideline'; and also his outstanding capability to provide tight pass coverage by "blanketing" RB's and TE's on pass defense.
One thing that stood out was that when the Saints were in a lot of their nickel packages during Mini-Camp, they would "mix and match" several of their linebackers in and out of the line-up; but when the team lined up for the first time in 11-on-11 team drills, it was A.J. Klein and Anzalone -- the Saints' two FASTEST and BEST COVER linebackers currently on the team at the moment -- who took the opening snap.
As of right now, Anzaolne appears to be one of the true "locks" among the team's rookies to see plenty of action as a starter; thanks in part mostly to the very notable injury issues that continue to plague veteran weakside / "Will" linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who missed Mini-Camp with a toe injury.
I will personally go out on a limb and GUARANTEE you that by the time the 2017 regular season is over, Anzalone will have replaced Ellerbe as the team's starting weakside / Will" linebacker.
Projection: Rotational player at all 3 linebacker positions (weakside, middle, and strongside), eventual starter at "Will" linebacker
TREY HENDRICKSON, "EDGE" RUSHER / 9-TECHNIQUE DEFENSIVE END
Many Saints fans were a bit upset a few months ago when the team waited until the third round (with the 103rd overall pick) of the recent 2017 Draft, to select an Edge rusher -- a position that head coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis both had said was a "priority" for the organization prior to the Draft.
Nevertheless, the team may have gotten lucky when 'small school' star and Florida Atlantic University defensive end Trey Hendrickson (who has often been compared to former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Jared Allen) was still on the board at the time.
However, the Saints coaching staff has been slowly bringing Hendrickson along, and he saw limited action during team drills in Mini-Camp; appearing mostly as a rotational player behind veterans Alex Okafor (the current starter at the edge position opposite of Cam Jordan), Darryl Tapp, and the recovering Hau'oli Kikaha.
It's more than likely that the Saints will give Hendrickson an increase in opportunity and playing time once Training Camp and especially the Pre-Season roll around, where we'll see just how the former 2016 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and all-time Florida Atlantic University sacks leader, handles the step-up in competition.
I'd expect that Hendrickson will eventually emerge as a key rotational player at the edge spot, but unless there's some unforseen catastrophic injuries or he "blows away" every one at Camp and during the Pre-Season, it'll be a while before he ever threatens to become a starter.
Projection: Rotational / situational player at the "Edge" / 9-Technique defensive end position
AL-QUADIN MUHAMMAD, EDGE RUSHER / 9-TECHNIQUE DEFENSIVE END
The Saints also added another player in the 6th Round of the 2017 NFL Draft that can also play the Edge position, in University of Miami Hurricanes defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad. However, Muhammad at this point might be someone who's viewed as a bit of a 'project player', given his personal history and his short-term college career because of that history.
Entering his redshirt junior season, he was dismissed from the team in Aug. 2016 for violating NCAA rules by having an improper relationship with a South Beach luxury car rental agency; and before that was also suspended for the 2014 season for punching a fellow student after Miami’s spring game.
Palm Beach Post Canes beat writer Matt Porter says that Muhammad was a heralded high school recruit from the state of New Jersey who was suspended for nearly as many games (14) as he played in (17), and finished with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks. That significantly dropped his Draft stock, which was why the Saints were able to select him with the 196th overall pick.
Muhammad was limited to ony a handful of snaps during Mini-Camp; and just where he fits into the Saints' plans at the position, won't likely become clear until Training Camp and the Pre-Season.
But unless he has some sort of "break out" performance, it's hard to envision him anywhere else besides buried deep on the depth chart --- and he even could be a candidate for the Practice Squad as well, while he continues his development.
Projection: Rotational / situational player at the "Edge" / 9-Technique defensive end, could also end up on the Practice Squad
Now until we've had the opportunity to see all of these young men perform throughout the entirety of the 2017 NFL season, it's impossible to determine exactly WHO will actually have the "biggest impact".
I'd personally lean towards free safety Marcus Williams, simply because I believe he will help out greatly in transforming the Saints defense from one of the NFL's worst the past few seasons, into a respectable unit.
But clearly a player like Ramczyk, who will be playing a vital role in keeping Drew Brees well-protected and helping to establish the running game for new veteran RB Adrian Peterson, could be equally as important to the Saints' overall success despite not playing what's considered a "glamour" position.
And then there's players like Kamara and Anzalone, who each will infuse their respective positions with an energy and exuberance, that's been clearly lacking for the past several seasons.
Each of these players could make a vital contribution in their own unique way --- and that ladies and gentlemen and Saints fans of all ages, would be the "biggest impact" of all.............