When the New Orleans Saints selected Florida State offensive tackle Rick Leonard with the #127th overall selection in Round 4 of the 2018 NFL Draft this past Saturday, the initial response from most people that closely follow the event every year was: WHO?????
Many analysts and specifically a few well-known individuals within the National Media that cover the NFL Draft every year, took issue with the selection; which no doubt were heavily influenced by his below average grades from a variety of outlets around the country that predicted he would be taken in the Draft's later rounds or perhaps not even chosen at all (UDFA).
Leonard was actually a defensive lineman during his first 2 seasons with the Seminoles, before making the choice to switch over to the other side of the line, where he very quickly emerged as a starter at right tackle. He ended up making a total of 19 starts at the position, in his final 2 seasons in Tallahassee.
Nevertheless, while a majority of scouts throughout the League were impressed with Leonard’s athleticism and physicality "down in the trenches', they took great exception to what some considered to be a lack of technique.
Several scouts feel that although Leonard possesses a considerable amount of upper body strength and has the ability to powerfully push opposing defenders back off the line of scrimmage, they still feel that Leonard is a "project" who needs more time to fully develop in order to be considered a legitimate NFL-caliber O-Lineman mainly due to a lack of experience.
That much in all likelihood, is indisputable.
But the real "debate" or "controversy" if you will, is just how close Leonard actually is or isn't at this point in his development, and whether or not his selection warranted New Orleans passing on much higher-rated players who were still actually available when they took him.
Among the names of higher-rated players who were available when the Saints chose Leonard included his former college teammate, EDGE pass rusher Josh Sweat, University of Miami DT R.J. McIntosh, Michigan DT Maurice Hurst, Central Florida LB Shaquem Griffin, Memphis LB Genard Avery, Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli, Central Michigan TE Tyler Conklin, and Virginia Tech DT Tim Settle, to name a few.
However, what's important to keep in mind is that the Saints organization themselves viewed Leonard as the higher-rated player on THEIR Draft Board at that point — and they felt the urgency to go ahead and select him before anyone else would.
We can argue all day if that would have actually been the case, but the Saints obviously felt compelled to get Leonard before any other team could snatch him up.
After the selection was made, Saints head coach Sean Payton acknowledged that Leonard has some more developing to do, but also lent some insight into what their logic was behind the pick, as well as the potential role on the team that they envision for him from this point going forward.
“We think that there is still some growth because of his lack of experience,” Payton said.
“He’s a big body, he’s physical. Right away, I can see a jumbo role. I could see him compete to be a game day backup tackle. I thought as the season went on with his film, it got better and better, and you could see him becoming more and more familiar with playing on the offensive side of the ball.”
A few days later on Monday, Payton told NOLA.com / The Times Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein that the organization wasn't worried about drafting players with limited experience at a position such as Leonard and fellow 2018 Saints Draftee (and 5th Round pick) safety / cornerback Natrell Jamerson, who originally began his college career on the offensive side of the ball at wide receiver.
"I'm comfortable with where they're at from an experience standpoint," Payton said.
Critics of the Leonard pick remain unconvinced, and are certain that Leonard will have some great difficulty at getting acclimated to the professional game.
But the Saints clearly don't care what they think, and it's more than safe to say that the organization feels that they'll eventually get the last laugh when Leonard (hopefully) proves all of his doubters dead-wrong.
It was a sentiment that was echoed by Leonard’s agent, Brett Tessler; who said on Twitter this past Moday morning that his client was receiving a great deal of attention from NFL teams during the draft — some of whom planned to take Leonard as soon as the 5th round — but weren't able to after the Saints selected him.
“The New Orleans Saints knew exactly what they were doing taking Rick Leonard in the 4th round, because I spoke to a couple teams today who told me they definitely would have taken him in the 5th if he was still there,” Tessler said.
However, it should be important to note that Leonard is his client, and it wouldn't exactly be the first time that an NFL agent tried to make a player that he represents personally, "look good" in the eyes of the general public.
The New Orleans Saints knew exactly what they were doing taking Rick Leonard (OT, FSU) in the 4th round because I spoke to a couple teams today who told me they definitely would have taken him in the 5th round if he was still there.
— Brett Tessler (@TesslerSports) April 30, 2018
Nevertheless, assuming that Tessler is being truthful, then it would confirm the reason why the Saints took Leonard at the point that they did.
And perhaps more importantly: give them justification for selecting Leonard over the much-higher rated players by a majority of the other 32 NFL teams.
The reality of the entire situation is that until we all see Leonard put on the full pads during Training Camp in the relentless and oppressive NOLA summertime heat and humidity in early August, we really won't have a true assessment of his capabilities.
It's one thing to block pass rushers coming off the edge at the college level, but then it's a whole different matter getting to the professional ranks and having to block someone like Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan in practice every single day.
When that happens?
We'll find out REAL QUICK just exactly where Leonard is or isn't, at this stage of development.
One thing you can count on: the critics of the pick, will not be swayed. They'll remain unconvinced until it's proven on the football field otherwise, that New Orleans made the right choice.