The New Orleans Saints are now only 2 days away from the opening night of the 2018 NFL Draft, which will begin this Thursday Night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in suburban Dallas, at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN
And it's with that in mind this morning, that we present our final version of our 2018 Saints Mock Draft.
Please keep in mind as you read further: the Saints don't have a 2nd Round pick this year, since they already used it last year when they traded up to take superstar and eventual 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara. But they will have an extra pick in both Rounds 5 and 6, which are compensation from previous trades made by New Orleans last off-season.
So without further hesitation, let's get started — and we begin with the Saints' first pick at #27 overall.......
ROUND 1 (#27 OVERALL) JOSH JACKSON, CORNERBACK, IOWA
If there's been one particular theme this off-season for New Orleans based on their moves thus far, it's that they don't feel the need to make "splashy" moves, opting instead to make sound and logical decisions by getting players who both"fit" their system and can have an immediate impact.
Drafting another cornerback with their first selection for a 2nd straight year would be more of a luxury pick rather than a pick of "need" for the Saints, to be sure. But — the strength and value late in Round 1 will probably be at cornerback and at center/guard.
And selecting a player with the rare type of talent that University of Iowa CB Josh Jackson possesses, would undoubtedly also make the Saints pass defense damn near IMPENETRABLE; and give New Orleans one of the most talented defensive secondaries in the entire NFL.
As noted by CBS Sports.com: as a three-sport athlete hailing from Lake Dallas, Texas, Jackson saw limited action in his first two seasons after redshirting in 2014, breaking up six passes while playing in 26 games, making one start. That start came as a redshirt sophomore in the Outback Bowl, where he had three solo tackles against Florida, including one for loss.
But it wasn't until last year during the 2017 regular season, when Jackson put himself into the conversation as one of college football's truly elite CB's.
Jackson "broke out as a redshirt junior in 2017, racking up 18 passes defended while leading the nation with eight interceptions, returning two for "Pick 6" touchdowns — both in the same game against Wisconsin. He also had an impressive 27 PBU's ("pass break-ups") as well. And though he seriously considered returning for a senior season later on this year, he ultimately declared for the 2018 NFL Draft in early January.
The biggest issue for Jackson at the next level will be that he's actually still learning HOW to play the position. Jackson originally began his career as a wide receiver, and only started a total of 14 games for the Hawkeyes. NFL.com Media / Draft Analyst Daniel Jeremiah says that Jackson has good size for the position, and has the versatility to play both inside at the "slot" CB position as well as the outside boundary position.
Jeremiah observes that Jackson was deployed in a variety of coverages in Iowa's scheme, and was effective in all of them. In press coverage, he isn't physical, but he's very fluid to open up and "mirror" (as in, closely guard) an opposing wide receiver.
Simply put: Jackson is a "ball hawk"— and he has elite-caliber ball skills that allow him to be a big-time play-maker.
However, one major concern some scouts have is that Jackson isn't the fastest of CB's.
Jackson certainly has 1st-round size (6-foot-1, 196 pounds with 31⅛-inch arms) and has the leverage to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage; meaning that strength and size are not Jackson’s issue. But he only ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine last month, raising concerns that he could struggle against much faster WR's at the NFL level.
Jeremiah says that while the speed concerns are legitimate, Jackson wasn't ever really "tested" or challenged by a notably faster WR last season, so it's hard to tell (at least at this point) if that is really something that teams should be worried about,
Jeremiah notes that Jackson excels in zone coverage, where he sees through the wideout to the quarterback. He's quick to identify routes, break on the ball and finish. He also adds that Jackson has rare ball skills, which creates some spectacular picks. Additionally, Jackson is an effective wrap-up tackler in the run game. Overall, Jackson might lack ideal twitch and deep speed, but his rare combination of size and ball skills are outstanding.
Bottom line: Jeremiah believes that Jackson will be a "plug-and-play" starter as a rookie — just as Marshon Lattimore was for the Saints defense in 2017. And with Lattimore and Jackson manning the outside boundaries together, it would give the Saints one of the deepest and talented cornerback groups, in the entire NFL.
ROUND 2 (TRADE WITH CLEVELAND FOR THE #35 OVERALL PICK IN EXCHANGE FOR THE SAINTS 2019 2nd ROUND PICK AND BOTH OF THIS YEAR'S 6th ROUND PICKS AT #164 AND #189 OVERALL) — TO SELECT: MIKE GESICKI, TIGHT END, PENN STATE
As most NFL teams do, the Saints utilize a chart to grade draft capital like this one you can see here at Drafttek.com to determine what it will cost them to trade up and back into the 2nd Round -- which of course means that it would require giving up future draft capital.
With the majority of overall talent in this year's Class with 2nd Round grades, our Final Mock has the Saints giving up their 2019 second-rounder and both of their 6th round picks this year (#189 and #201 overall) to Cleveland, in exchange for one of the three 2nd Round picks currently held by the Browns, this one at #35 overall.
And at #35 overall in Round 2 with the pick acquired from Cleveland, the Saints select TE Mike Gesicki, of Penn State University.
If you've been following this year's Saints draft prospects, then you've likely heard of Gesicki by now and the obvious comparisons to former Saints TE Jimmy Graham, and how he seemingly would fit perfectly in the Saints offensive scheme and catching passes from Drew Brees.
But like Graham, Gesicki's biggest issue is with his blocking ability; and it will be something that he will certainly have to improve upon once he enters the NFL. Evaluators have questioned his effort and execution as a blocker and those skills are considered well short of NFL standards. Nevertheless, his ability to create mismatches as a receiver should ease those concerns, and rather quickly.
thesportsquotient.com NFL Draft analyst Alex Koslow says that Gesicki is more of a slot receiver than he is a tight end, due to his liability (as a blocker) in the run game. As Koslow cautions: Gesicki will make a career in the NFL as a tremendous receiving tight end, but if he can’t blossom as a run blocker too, it might not be as good as it could be.
That will be something that Saints brass very likely will take into consideration; although it's important to note that it won't necessarily prevent them from selecting him anyway, especially if they feel he can improve his deficiency in that area with some proper coaching technique.
But even if Gesicki's game didn't mirror Graham so much, you'd still be able to take comfort in knowing that because of the way Drew Brees utilizes his tight ends within the parameters of the Saints offensive scheme, Gesicki would serve as another great option for him to throw to.
Gesicki’s struggles with blocking are a concern to be sure, but with the recent signing of veteran Benjamin Watson, it would allow the Saints coaching staff to let Gesicki absorb all of the knowledge that he possibly can from the wily 37-year old veteran — while further developing his skills to be successful at the NFL level.
ROUND 3 (#91 OVERALL) DUKE EJIOFOR, EDGE PASS RUSHER / DEFENSIVE END, WAKE FOREST
The Saints come into this Draft with EDGE pass rusher listed as one of their 2018 off-season team "musts', and with the #91 overall selection in Round 3, they select one of this year's Class's most underrated players regardless of position, with Wake Forest defensive end Duke Ejiofor.
In his four-year career at Wake Forest, Ejiofor totaled 23.5 sacks; and he earned second-team All-ACC honors after finishing fourth in the conference with 14.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt senior in 2017. The 6-foot-4, 275 pound Ejiofor is considered by some analysts to possess some of the very best pass-rushing moves in the draft that are on par with this year's top EDGE rusher Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State, and "technique-wise" likely has the most active and best hands of any edge rusher in the class.
The main reason why Ejiofor may be overlooked by most teams (and why he'll still be available in Round 3 or later) is because the 22-year old (he turns 23 next week) had labrum surgery after the college season which ultimately held him from competing at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine (both of which he was invited to).
CBS Sports NFL Draft Analyst Chris Trapasso says that Ejiofor has NFL defensive end size and immense length. Beyond that, his hands are awesomely active, and he converts speed to power around the corner. While not very bendy, he gets to the quarterback with explosiveness and refined pass-rushing moves — most notable a nasty "swim move" — and is a force against the run mainly due to his hard-to-move frame.
A son of Nigerian immigrants, Ejiofor projects as a 4-3 rush end at the next level; and would be a great player to put on the opposite outside edge at weakside / right defensive end in Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's defensive scheme, as a complement to All-Pro strongside defensive end Cam Jordan.
ROUND 4 (#127 OVERALL) KEY'VANTANIE "KEKE" COUTEE, WIDE RECEIVER, TEXAS TECH
A wide receiver who can play in the slot and return kicks, Texas Tech University WR Key'vantanie "KeKe" Coutee is another big-time play-maker who is underappreciated or that is being overlooked (just as with Ejiofor in the previous pick); although in Coutee's case it's because of his diminutive (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) size. But make no mistake about it: "KeKe" can "straight-up ball" at the next level.
Coutee "broke out" as a sophomore in 2016, earning an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection after catching 55 passes for 890 yards and seven TDs. But then Coutee exploded for 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns on 93 catches as a junior last season in 2017, and also returned a kick for a TD as he racked up 315 yards on 10 kick returns.
CBS Sports.com Draft Analyst R.J. White says that Coutee is an agility-based slot wideout who's quicker than fast but possesses quality long speed. He notes that Coutee has adequate elusiveness and balance in the open field for a receiver at his smaller size, but also possesses "plus" return kick skills. White believes that Coutee will become a "niche offensive weapon" once he gets to the NFL — and we already know how much Saints head coach Sean Payton likes to have more weapons in his offensive arsenal.
Pro Football Focus Draft Analyst Josh Liskiewitz says that "Keke" will become an explosive playmaker for some lucky NFL team at the slot WR position, given that he racked up 1,265 yards from the slot at Texas Tech last year (best in this year's 2018 WR class), and forced 39 combined missed tackles after the catch in 2016 and 2017.
He was also one of the top deep threats in college football, putting up 542 receiving yards on targets at least 20 yards downfield on just 18 deep targets. And his selection would give the Saints a legitimate deep threat to eventually replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the designated Saints "speed" receiver, as well as a player capable of becoming a full-time kick returner.
It’s most likely Coutee will be taken by a team that needs a second wide receiver, or in the case of the Saints, might be looking to add more depth at the position. But make no mistake about it: putting Coutee in the same offense with Alvin Kamara, would give NFL defenses nightmares for many years to come.
ROUND 5 (#147 OVERALL) BRANDON PARKER, OFFENSIVE TACKLE, NORTH CAROLINA A&T
Though he is universally BELOVED by most Saints fans, the stark reality is that current starting offensive left tackle Terron Armstead has missed half of the last two seasons, and Saints team brass can no longer afford to ignore that. Which is why with the #147 overall selection in Round 5, we project New Orleans to address the issue head-on by selecting MASSIVE (6-foot-7, 315 pounds) North Carolina A&T offensive tackle Brandon Parker.
Parker anchored an offensive line on a team that won two Historically Black College and University National Championships in the last three years, and is a player who was taught initially by his father (who formerly played for the University of North Carolina) and is currently a high school coach.
As noted by CBS Sports.com Draft Analyst R.J. White: Parker initially "broke out" in 2015, earning MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year honors while starting all 12 games. He helped the Aggies finish with the No. 1 offense and No. 1 rushing offense in the conference as a junior while helping block for RB Tarik Cohen, who now plays for the Chicago Bears.
He was awarded MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year once again as a junior. Parker was again named MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year for his senior campaign in 2017, while also earned him first-team FCS All-American honors from the Associated Press.
But — the most impressive statistic of his career? Parker NEVER allowed a single sack while at NC A&T.
White notes that Parker has the serious NFL size, length, and plus athleticism to eventually become successful at the next level. White cautions that Parker can get very high when moving to the second level but when accurate, he plays with good power. He adds that Parker could stand to add some strength to withstand bull rushes, and that his feet can stop once he makes contact in pass protection.
Parker will be considered by some as a "developmental prospect", but with the right system in which he can be allowed to flourish initially as a back-up while he continues to grow, Parker is a player that in due time, could become an anchor at the left tackle spot for New Orleans.
ROUND 5 (#164 OVERALL) KAYLON "POONA" FORD, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS
The Saints have shown that they'd still like to upgrade the middle of their D-Line, and the very underrated Ford (whom they met with at both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl) might be one of their draft targets they intend to do it with.
Last season as a senior, Ford "broke out" and was named Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year by the league’s coaches while serving as arguably the biggest reason why the Longhorns had one of the most improved defensive teams in the country in 2017.
For the season, Ford recorded 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and a blocked field goal.
Sports Illlustrated.com NFL Draft Analyst Andy Staples says Ford is one of the class's biggest "sleepers", and the 5'11", 303-pound Ford has been dismissed by some as too small to play inside. That’s pretty much what members of the Texas coaching staff thought when they took over last season. It took about one day at practice to realize that Ford is a nightmare for guards and centers who try to block him one-on-one.
Because of his size, Staples adds that Ford will need to play in a defense that prefers gap-shooting defensive tackles. But given the fact that he could be available on day three, he could provide incredible value to such a team.
Given that they met with and then watched him play on back-to-back weekends when this entire 2018 Draft process first began, it's probably safe to say that New Orleans is one of them.
ROUND 6 (#189 OVERALL) TRADED TO CLEVELAND
ROUND 6 (#201 OVERALL) TRADED TO CLEVELAND
ROUND 7 (#245 OVERALL) RILEY FERGUSON, QUARTERBACK, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS
A transfer from Tennessee, Ferguson thrived at Memphis in one of college football's most potent offenses. Ferguson threw for just under 8,000 yards along with 70 touchdowns in just two seasons. Even in a loaded quarterback class, few were as dominant on a weekly basis like Ferguson was with the Tigers.
In 2016, Ferguson put up 3,698 yards for 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Ferguson then followed that up last season with 4,257 yards for 38 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 2017.
Those are phenomenal numbers to be certain, so why would he still be there for the Saints in the 7th and final round?
Bleacher Report NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller says that Ferguson is a rhythm quarterback who needs time to develop as a passer and fill out his lean frame. He's almost 6'3" and weighed only 196 pounds as a senior. That's a concern because he likes to move around in and out of the pocket. Gaining weight is perhaps the easiest thing for prospects to do, and Ferguson will need to bulk up some to handle the NFL beating.
But his production over those last 2 seasons is undeniable, and it's likely that a front office somewhere will probably consider him a one year "project" before seeing if he will be ready to compete for a chance to earn a starting job. In other words, Ferguson isn't viewed as a "franchise" QB at this point, and there are valid concerns that he may not even become a starting-caliber NFL QB.
But if given the opportunity to sit and learn behind Brees for a couple of seasons, there's always the chance that Brees's knowledge could "rub off" on Ferguson while he's allowed to blossom into a solid if not spectacular signal-caller. Considering that it's one of the last few picks of the Draft, the Saints lose nothing if Ferguson turns out to be a "bust", as some evaluators fear he could be.........