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Barry Hirstius

It’s Only 4 Months In, But the 2017 Saints Draft Class Might Be the Best EVER

When the New Orleans Saints were finished making their selections in the 2017 NFL Draft 4 months ago on Saturday, April 29th, 2017; it would seem very unlikely during that time that never in their wildest of imaginations, did they ever expect the brand new Draft Class of seven players to turn out in the manner in which they have. 

Sure, they knew that they had gotten some "good" players with the total of 7 picks they made, but to say that they believed it would have turned out this well (so far) might be stretching it, to say the least.

As of this very moment with the Final Pre-Season game tomorrow night and the regular season opener at Minneapolis, Minnesota against the Vikings on ESPN Monday Night Football only just 12 days away, the Saints have no less than 5 players from this year's Draft class who could start the season as rookies in the starting line-up for opening kickoff.

Top pick CB Marshon Lattimore, fellow 1st Round pick offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, 2nd Round pick free safety Marcus Williams, 3rd Round pick running back Alvin Kamara, and 3rd Round pick linebacker Alex Anzalone are all players whom either already are or appear to be potential immediate starters.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Meanwhile the 2 other players -- 3rd Round pick defensive end Trey Hendrickson and 6th Round pick defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad -- could see enough action to make significant contributions.

When you add it all up, it makes this year's 2017 Saints Draft class potentially one of the best if not THE BEST Saints Draft class ever, throughout the team's entire 51-year history.

"Every year you have a draft class, but we've got to be able to put out the players that we feel like deserve to be out there," Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters in his post-game press conference after this past Saturday Night's 13-0 'shutout' victory over the Houston Texans.

"The team in the locker room counts on that. To their credit, these guys have picked things up. They are guys that are quick studies." 

Quick studies, indeed.

Here's a brief synopsis on all 7 players of the Saints 2017 Draft Class 4 months in, and what there futures might have in store going forward:

 

MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK  1ST ROUND (#11 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Lattimore was expected to see extensive action as a rookie no matter what, because of his outstanding capability to "lock down" opposing top / #1 WR's on the outside boundary.

But because of the fractured fibula injury that's expected to keep starting #1 CB Delvin Breaux out of action for at least the first 4 games of the regular season and possibly longer, Lattimore could open the season as the starter at CB on the side opposite of fellow starter and #2 CB P.J. Williams.

Lattimore still appears to be nagged a bit by injuries, which has a sizable portion of Saints fans worried given his reputation for being injury-prone despite his All-American career at Ohio State. But it's more than evident that he has ELITE cover skills (he had a solid performance with 2 tackles and two PBU's against the Texans), and it would be shocking to me personally if Lattimore doesn't go on to eventually become an All-Pro CB for the Saints.

 

RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE TACKLE  1ST ROUND (#32 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hinton, New Orleans Advocate

Ramczyk, like Lattimore, was expected to see plenty of playing time as a rookie, but because of an injury to a veteran player in the starting line-up, is being pressed into action as an immediate starter.

Ramczyk was originally drafted to play behind starting right tackle and 11-year veteran Zach Strief this season, the same man whom he was drafted to eventually replace. But thanks to a torn labrum /shoulder injury suffered during Mini-Camp by starting left tackle Terron Armstead, Ramczyk is being put in at the LT position -- the same position he played  as an All-American at the University of Wisconsin -- in Armstead's place.

So far, Ramczyk has proven capable of holding his own against some of the NFL's elite pass-rushers during the Pre-Season; and also like Lattimore there's no reason to doubt that if he can avoid any major issues, he can eventually become an All-Pro at whatever position the Saints put him at, down the line.

 

MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY 2ND ROUND (#42 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Williams has already won a starting job at the free safety position thanks in part to his off-the-charts athleticism and ball-hawking skills that very likely could make him one of the true "steals" of the entire 2017 NFL Draft class.

NOLA.com / The Times Picayune beat writer Herbie Teope noted the other night in his article on the 2017 defensive rookies that Williams started at the nickel back spot against the Texans last Sunday in a three-safety package and played 39 defensive snaps, which tied cornerback P.J. Williams for the most plays on the night. The rookie free safety produced three tackles and a pass defensed, and almost recorded an interception. 

While Williams played and started at the nickel spot, you had better believe that the Saints will find ways to further take full advantage of Williams' elite athleticism and ball-hawking ability going forward. This kid will be a future All-Pro at the safety position for years to come, and you can take that to the bank.

 

ALVIN KAMARA, RUNNING BACK  3RD ROUND (#67 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Kamara was rested for this past Saturday Night's 3rd Pre-Season game against Houston, but that's because the team already knows what they have in this dynamic and talented rookie RB out of the University of Tennessee.

Not only is Kamara expected to fill the old "scatback" role held previously by former Saints RB's Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, but he's already shown that he's more than capable of shouldering the load as a "lead" / #1 RB if ever called upon. 

Kamara has exploded onto the scene in the Pre-Season, tallying 96 yards on 9 carries in games against the Browns and the Chargers. Saints fans are giddy with excitement over the variety of ways that Saints head coach Sean Payton will find to use the sensational rookie in the offense, and NFL defenses will now have a new player in the vaunted Saints offensive attack to be concerned about.

 

ALEX ANZALONE, LINEBACKER  3RD ROUND (#76 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Ron Schwane, The Associated Press

Anzalone was a pick that some fans (and writers) questioned the team making when they passed on a handful of available edge pass-rushers when they were on the clock with the overall pick of the 3rd Round, but the Saints knew EXACTLY what they were doing when it came to Anzalone.

Anzalone has been seeing plenty of time at the "Will"/ weak side linebacker spot; and Teope says that with the Saints defense opening the game against the Texans in a nickel package, Anzalone drew the start at the weak side position and went on to play 33 defense snaps, totaling two tackles and a pass defensed. 

Anzalone has elite speed for the LB position; and his ability to cover TE's and RB's as well as move fluidly sideline-to-sideline gives the Saints defense a skill-set that they've lacked at LB for the last several seasons. Much in a very similar way to Marcus Willliams and Kamara, Anzalone could prove to be one of the "steals" of the entire 2017 Draft class.

 

TREY HENDRICKSON, DEFENSIVE END  3RD ROUND (#103 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Hendrickson has made the least impact thus far among all of this rookie class, but that shouldn't be taken as a reason to think that he won't have an impact for the Saints defense further down the line. Some minor injuries have kept him limited in Camp, but he looks to be fully healed now and ready to contribute to the Saints pass rush moving forward.

Teope observes that Hendrickson played 16 snaps as part of the defensive line rotation and knocked down a pass attempt at the line of scrimmage against the Texans. At the moment, Hendrickson is 3rd on the depth chart behind starting edge rushers Alex Okafor and Hau'oli Kikaha, but should see increased playing time in sub-rush packages going forward.

One thing to remember about Hendrickson: he was the all-time leader in sacks at Florida Atlantic University; and given the time to further develop with his outstanding pass rush skills, could become a very significant contributor to the Saints defensive unit in due time.

 

AL-QUADIN MUHAMMAD, DEFENSIVE END  6TH ROUND (#196 Overall pick)

Photo courtesy of Brett Coomer, The Houston Chronicle

Last but certainly not least, the final player chosen in the 2017 Saints Draft Class may be the biggest surprise of them all; given the fact that Muhammad was considered a "project" player when the Saints took him after his short but controversial career with the storied University of Miami Hurricanes football program. But make no mistake about it: this kid WILL be on the team's Final 53-man roster when it is formally announced this coming Sunday.

For the 3rd straight week against the Texans this past Saturday Night, Muhammad was able to record a sack; while generating consistent pressure off the outside edge as he played for most of the 2nd half. As we mentioned after that game a few weeks ago in Cleveland: with Muhammad's strong performance during Training Camp and now in all 3 of these Pre-Season games so far, there is NO WAY the Saints will be able to "sneak" Muhammad onto the Practice Squad.

The 22-year old Muhammad has clearly went out and earned his roster spot, giving the Saints scouting department what appears to be another late round Draft "gem" to their credit. This kid can play -- and do it well. He'll only get even better with more time and experience, as noted in this fantastic analysis and film breakdown by my good friend, Walter "Reverend Deuce" Windham, writer / film analyst and NFL Draft expert for Canal Street Chronicles.

Now let's be certain to give credit where credit is due, to the absolutely phenomenal job that's been done by Saints Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland, and the entire Saints Scouting Department.

To "hit" on these many picks in one Draft, is an absolute testament to the work that they've done in the off-season since the end of last year, with regard to talent evaluation and how a player "fits" into their program on either side of the football, as well as special teams.

(Photo by Brett Duke, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

This 2017 Saints Draft Class has Ireland's fingerprints all over it, and it can't be emphasized enough about just how good of a job that he's done for the organization since coming aboard in January of 2015.

You have to go all the way back to the Saints 1981 Draft under then-head coach Bum Phillips, to find a Saints draft class as good as this year's class has the potential to be.

The 1981 Saints Draft is generally regarded by long-time Saints writers / observers such as myself, as the team's greatest Draft class; which yielded several immediate starters including Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson, running back George Rogers, strong safety Russell Gary, defensive tackle Frank Warren, defensive tackle Jim Wilks, tight end Hoby Brenner, offensive guard Louis Oubre, nose tackle Jerry Boyarsky, cornerback Johnnie Poe, and fullback Hokie Gajun.

That's a whopping ELEVEN (11) players that made the team's final roster that year (back when the Draft still had 12 rounds), and out of those 11, eight of them were either immediate or eventually became starters.

Now it's unlikely that this year's 2017 Draft class will match the 1981 Draft Class put together by Phillips, just from the sheer amount of impact that the 1981 class had on the franchise as a whole.

The team had finished 1-15 the year before in the infamous "Aints" 1980 season; and head coaching philosophy aside, Phillips' superior talent evaluation skills were in full swing when he put together his first-ever Saints Draft class in his dual capacity of head coach and General Manager.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Jackson, Warren, and Wilks in particular went on in later seasons to become a part of the foundation in the late 80's under Phillips' eventual successor, former USFL champion head coach Jim Mora; of a top-rated defensive unit that Saints fans would eventually go on to know and love as "The Dome Patrol".

While it's still way too early to tell if any of these 7 players chosen by Ireland will have a similar impact upon the franchise heading into the future as that 1981 Draft Class chosen by the Bum did, the potential to be ranked at the top of the team's Draft history is certainly a distinct possibility -- although that's something that will have to be determined at a later point in time.

Nevertheless, it cannot be stressed enough to just how much of a huge impact that this year's class appears it will have.

“I think we’ve drafted people that want to come in and play nasty, play physical, and that leads to everyone looking faster on the field,” Saints veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro told New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill in an one-on-one interview on Monday.

“Most of the time, playing faster is people playing with better effort.”.

Based on what we've seen in the past 4 months and the first 3 games of the Pre-Season, Vaccaro's observation would appear to be a very accurate assessment.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

These young men are all "to a man", outstanding young players with the potential to be great.

If that actually does happen to become the case over the course of due time; it would mean that the 7 rookies who make up the New Orleans Saints 2017 Draft Class, could someday be considered the greatest Draft Class in team history.......... 

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally 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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