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Likely “Top Targets” for the Saints 1st Round Pick in the 2018 Draft

As the NFL season comes to an official end with tonight's Super Bowl, fans of the New Orleans Saints are now already looking ahead towards the 2018 off-season process which includes the 2018 NFL Draft; and one of the hot topics of conversation among Who Dats at the moment: which players on current Draft boards would be a likely "top target" for New Orleans with the #27 overall selection?

The answer to that question varies depending upon who you ask, though the general consensus among well-informed NFL observers and analysts would seem to suggest a few players at the linebacker position; with the tight end spot coming up a close 2nd right behind it.

That would seem appropriate, since the Saints appear to be only one more good player away at those respective positions from each side of the football on their current team roster, in becoming one of the League's truly elite teams after last year's (11-5) record and NFC South Division Championship-winning season.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

However, there are some players at other positions in this year's 2018 NFL Draft class that would be also be considered "top targets" for the Saints team roster besides the linebacker and tight end spots — which include defensive end, wide receiver, offensive guard, and yes: even at quarterback.

That's IF they even decide to address the future of the QB position at all just yet, with Drew Brees still likely to continue playing for a few more seasons. For the record: I think if a QB like Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State "falls" to #27, they'll consider it.

Otherwise, I think they'll wait until the middle rounds to address the future of the QB position (sorry Saints fans, but Taysom Hill is NOT the Saints "QB of the future") and go after an underrated QB like Kyle Lauletta of Richmond or Mike White of Western Kentucky.

I just don't envision the Saints giving in to the outrageous demand of resources that it will require for them to trade up and select fan-favorite QB Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, who's projected to be a Top 10 pick.

So...

It's with that in mind this morning, that yours truly (along with the Saints News Network) takes a quick look at a handful of players who we think would be "top targets" for the Saints with their first pick at #27 overall in this year's upcoming Draft, in nearly 3 months from now.

And we'll start first with .......

 

TREMAINE EDMUNDS, MIDDLE / "MIKE" LINEBACKER, VIRGINIA TECH

The #1 linebacker prospect on the majority of draft boards is Georgia Bulldogs All-American Roquan Smith. Smith is considered to be a head-hunter with brilliant speed who should transition very well to the NFL game. Unfortunately however, Smith will likely be off the board well before the 27th pick comes up for Saints brass; assuming that nothing seriously wrong or crazy happens between now and Draft Day (April 26th).

But the #2 LB prospect, Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds — the younger brother of current Saints 3rd string RB Trey Edmunds — is a 6-foot-5, 250 pound stud linebacker in his own right; and is a player that runs very well with a very notable change of direction that allows him to play "sideline to sideline", according to WaitingForNextYear.com's NFL Draft analyst Joe Gilbert.

Edmunds led the Hokies last season with 109 total tackles (14 for a loss), 5.5 sacks and a trio of forced fumbles. The Virginia native was an absolute animal on the field, and his 2017 junior season for the Hokies was equally impressive as his 2016 sophomore campaign (94 total tackles, 14.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, and an interception) the year before.

Gilbert makes the observation that the younger Edmunds is athletic enough to play in coverage against smaller receivers and big enough to take on the bigger tight ends in coverage. He has the athleticism and size to take on traffic and fight through contact to make plays behind or at the line of scrimmage. Bottom line: Gilbert says that Edmunds is an all-around linebacker who can be a difference maker against the run and pass.

Additionally, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller noted the other day that he views Edmunds as a player that is somewhere between outstanding young Jaguars LB Telvin Smith and Vikings All-Pro LB Anthony Barr. He is a taller, leaner linebacker, but his quickness is his best asset. He has the ability to get around blockers to find the ball either against the run or as a pass-rusher.

That's exactly the type of linebacker that the Saints defense still seems to be missing at the moment, and should Edmunds still be sitting on the board when the Saints are on the clock at #27, a reunion of the Edmunds Brothers in NOLA could very well take place.

 

LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH, WEAKSIDE / "WILL" LINEBACKER, BOISE STATE

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The Saints need a potential "game changer" at the LB position, and perhaps no player at the linebacker position coming out of college can alter the outcome of a game defensively as well as Vander Esch, who may also be the biggest "sleeper" at the linebacker position despite winning the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017.

The main reasons that the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Vander Esch may have been overlooked previously before heading into this current Draft process is that he missed more than half the 2016 season with injuries, and also because he played at Boise State — a program where despite sending a handful players to the NFL in recent years, still doesn't get the respect that other bigger schools like Alabama and Ohio States always seem to do.

But that all changed for Vander Esch thanks to his redshirt junior year in 2017, where he completely went into full-attack mode and recorded a team-high 141 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. Vander Esch also led all FBS linebackers with 57 run stops in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.

Then there was his back-to-back performances against Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship Game (a whopping 16 tackles and an interception); and a few weeks later against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, where he recorded 12 tackles and a sack in a 38-28 victory.

Vander Esch has been compared by some to former Chicago Bears star Brian Urlacher, and my good friend and WWL New Orleans TV & Radio Football / Draft Analyst Mike Detillier says that he plays the run very well and where he is really most impressive is in his ability to drop back in coverage.

Detillier adds that Vander Esch needs to physically get stronger, but his football intelligence, reverse skills and his track-down ability grade out at a high level. A Saints selection of Vander Esch at #27 might come as a surprise to some, but if you follow the Draft process every year then you already know why he'd be a "good fit" in NOLA.

 

MARK ANDREWS, TIGHT END, OKLAHOMA

Photo courtesy of The Tulsa World

Andrews, a redshirt junior, was a consensus All-American and won the 2017 John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. He led the Sooners with 62 receptions for 958 yards and 8 touchdowns this season, and served as one of the top receiving targets for Oklahoma's top-rated QB prospect Baker Mayfield.

He also finished as Oklahoma's career leader for yards by a tight end with 1,765, and because of his size (he's listed at 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds), he has the potential to be a match-up nightmare for defenses at the next level.

NFL Draft analyst Matt Lombardo says that Andrews is the premier tight end in this year's class, and is a physically imposing target both in the red zone and over the middle of the field where he's shown a propensity to fight for contested passes. 

And my friend WWL New Orleans TV & Radio Football / Draft Analyst Mike Detillier also says that Andrews is his #1 rated tight end and feels that Andrews would be the "perfect fit" in Saints head coach Sean Payton's offensive scheme.

CBS Sports currently has Andrews going at the end of the first round (once again: the Saints are picking 27th), although it's likely that he could last into the 2nd Round — where the Saints won't have a pick because they traded it away in last year's draft to move up and select RB Alvin Kamara.

 

MIKE GESICKI, PENN STATE

Photo courtesy of United Press International

The 6-foot-6, 252 pound Gesicki is one of the top tight end prospects for the upcoming draft and is arguably the top senior tight end in this year's class. Gesicki has the size to be a future in-line blocker at the next level, but he has impressive movement and ball skills that should make him a solid "receiving" TE at the NFL level as well.

Gesicki will be yet another name for Saints fans to monitor at the Scouting Combine, as he looks to solidify his position as a Top-3 tight end in this year's 2018 TE class. Gesicki caught 57 out of 80 targets for 563 yards and 9 TD's as a senior for the Nittany Lions in 2017 and flashed next-level athleticism along the way. 

ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Steve Muench says that Gesicki is a big target who has great length and big hands. He doesn't drop a lot of passes and can create match-up problems. and an NFL team that takes him will be getting a guy that’s going to be someone you can use in that way.

Muench notes that you can isolate Gesicki against a corner or safety in the red zone, and it’s going to be tough for them to win that jump-ball situation. He’s an athlete who, because of his volleyball and basketball background, is used to going up and high-pointing balls.

Gesicki will end up reminding a lot of NFL fans of Seattle Seahawks (and former Saints tight end) Jimmy Graham — and Saints fans should be thrilled if the team were to snag him at #27.

 

RASHEEM GREEN, DEFENSIVE END, USC

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

As a junior this past season, Green finished second in the Pac-12 with 10 sacks along with 12.5 tackles for loss for the USC defense in 2017, before declaring his pro eligibility. Green's "highlight performance" in 2017 came during a 3-sack performance in a 48-17 win over Arizona State.

According to the Trojans, Green’s 10-sack year in 2017 was the first double-digit sack performance for the famed powerhouse program since 2012. He's projected to go off the Draft Board at any time before the end of Day #2, with a real chance of going in the 1st Round if he tests well at the Scouting Combine and at his Pro Day in March.

Pro Football Focus also rated him one of the best pass-rushers in the country, so he'll be hyped by both the scouting and analytical sides in the draft. Coming out of famed Serra High School in Gardena, California, Green was the No. 8-ranked defensive tackle in the Class of 2015. He finished his USC career with 117 tackles, including 20 for loss and 16.5 sacks.

ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. says that Green has a tremendous frame and was "kind of sneaky" as far as how good of a pass rusher that he is, adding that people don’t give him enough credit and projects him to be taken at the end of Round #1.

Should he still be there when the Saints pick at #27 (he most likely will be), it would give the Saints another option to fulfill their pass-rushing needs to further improve their #10 ranked overall NFL defense from the season that just ended.

 

HARRISON PHILLIPS, DEFENSIVE END / TACKLE, STANFORD

Photo courtesy of The San Francisco Examiner

The player that I personally refer to as "The One Man Wrecking Crew" (both as an inside joke / reference to his legitimate background as a former state of Nebraska amateur wrestling heavyweight champion in his junior year of high school; and also for his tenacious style of play), Phillips is what an old guy like me views as a throwback to another bygone era when TOUGH MEN like Deacon Jones, "Mean" Joe Greene, and Jack Youngblood completely dominated the middle of the football field.

Athlon Magazine NFL Draft analyst J.P. Scott says that Phillips has the look of a guy who could be the key piece of a solid NFL defense for a decade. Scott makes the observation that Phillips is simply a disruptor on the defensive line. He's a physical and technical mismatch against most interior offensive linemen, thanks to his extensive wrestling background. He won multiple state and national wrestling titles while in high school in Nebraska; and the technique and skills that he honed in wrestling translate to impeccable technique and leverage, allowing him to duck, shuck and swim by even the best offensive linemen he goes up against.

Once in the backfield, Phillips has an elite nose for the ball, piling up tackling stats you usually only see from linebackers. In 2017 alone, he collected 103 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Scott does caution that some might consider Phillips to be a little on the light side (6-4, 255) for a defensive tackle, and that seems to be impacting where draft analysts are projecting him right now.

Scott adds that Phillips is widely looked at as a guy who could go in the late third or early fourth round, but some have him as a late first-rounder. His versatility is going to be what gives him a leg up when he's evaluated against other prospects. He's the sort of player who can stay on the field no matter what defensive front a team decides to employ.

The Saints seemingly haven't placed a high priority on "replacing" veteran Nick Fairley, who they lost last year because of a heart condition that likely has ended his pro career. That's because they had already drafted Sheldon Rankins to fill that role for the future.

But Phillips is a rare and special player, and the Saints could very well be "set" for the future of their interior D-Line if they were to take a shot at him at #27. Either way: some lucky NFL team out there is going to get a "steal" at the end of Round 1.

 

CHRISTIAN KIRK, WIDE RECEIVER, TEXAS A&M

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

As of this very moment (a lot can change between now and April ), the top 2 WR's in the 2018 NFL Draft Class — Courtland Sutton of SMU and Calvin Ridley of Alabama — are both expected to already be "off the board" when the Saints finally pick in the 1st Round at #27 overall.

So we begin our look at the WR position first with the talented Christian Kirk of Texas A&M, who likely would have been ranked ahead of Sutton and Ridley in this year's WR class were it not for the fact that the Aggies essentially had horrible play from the QB position last year.

In spite of that, Kirk still managed to make 71 catches for 919 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2017; and also has the ability to "take it to the house" on kick and punt returns. Kirk finished his three-year career with 234 receptions for 2,856 yards and 26 touchdowns. Additionally, he had six punt return touchdowns and one kickoff returned for a score.

NFL.com NFL Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah says that Kirk is a compact, muscled-up WR who's built like a running back and plays in the slot as well as outside. He's an exceptional route runner, understands how to leverage defensive backs, sell double-moves and cleanly enter/exit the break point. He also has strong hands and tracks the ball smoothly, does a lot of work in the middle of the field and doesn't let heavy traffic affect his concentration.

Jeremiah compares Kirk to Lions WR Golden Tate and believes he can have similar success. If he falls far enough in Round 1 (to #27 overall, where the Saints are picking), it could be hard for New Orleans to pass on a player who seemingly would be the "perfect complement" to Saints #1 WR Michael Thomas.

 

MICHAEL GALLUP, WIDE RECEIVER, COLORADO STATE

Photo courtesy of The Denver Post

Gallup was one of the "break out" players at the recent 2018 Senior Bowl, and is one of this upcoming 2018 Draft Class's biggest risers. While perfectly capable of being any team's #1 WR, Gallup would seemingly fit perfectly into the Saints offense as the #2 WR of the future, alongside current #1 WR Micheal Thomas.

Gallup set a school record of 100 catches in 2017, and had a total of 21 receiving touchdowns and 2,685 receiving yards in his two seasons at Colorado State. He was also a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver, as well as Pro Football Focus's highest graded WR in all of college football in 2017 (with a 92.1 rating), and they placed him on its All-American team. He also earned first-team All-American honors from the Football Writers Association of America and was a second-team selection from the Associated Press.

Oh, and by the way: Moore did it while earning the reputation along the way as a "highlight reel-maker", by making what appeared to be difficult grabs often look easy. That's the opinion of CBS Sports Draft Analyst Chris Trapasso, who notes that Gallup isn't "flashy" but he's a consistent "chain-mover" with top-notch ball skills.

As a reference for all of you older Saints fans that are reading this: he's this generation's version of former LSU and Saints 1980's WR Eric Martin. He's reliable in "clutch situations", and he's just NOT going to drop anything thrown his way.

Gallup as of right now is currently THE biggest "riser" in recent Mock Drafts (ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. even had him going to the Cowboys at #19 recently), and is just one of a handful of players for the Saints to actually consider taking with their first selection at #27 overall........

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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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