With the New Orleans Saints getting closer and closer to the 2018 NFL regular season, a strong wave of optimism among fans, coaches, and even players seemingly has become "contagious" throughout the 'Who Dat Nation' if one were to use that analogy; with the start of next week's Training Camp fast approaching.
The Saints ― who were (11-5) last year and will be defending the first NFC South Division Championship for the first time since their last previous one in 2013 ― are looking to build off an exciting, yet heartbreaking end of the 2017 season.
Coming off successful drafts the last three seasons, the 2018 roster looks to continue building a “youth movement” of players capable of making immediate impacts. It's been an incredible run of success for the Saints front office in the past 3 years, and the combined efforts of general manager Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, and director of college scouting Jeff Ireland.
In just 3 years time, they've very quietly gone from being one of the most heavily criticized, to a championship contender once again; something that they had gotten used to following that magical Super Bowl run following the end of their unforgettable 2009 season.
It has to be pointed out that just 4 years ago, the Saints yielded a draft ― their horrid 2014 NFL Draft ― that doesn’t have a single player on the team today.
But then Ireland was brought aboard because of his connection and friendship with Payton which dated back to their time together in Dallas on Bill Parcells' staff with the Cowboys.
With Ireland calling most of the shots on 2015 NFL Draft Weekend (with input of course from Payton and Loomis) after coming aboard, 2015’s Saints draft class saw signs of life; with O-Lineman Andrus Peat having proven himself worthy of a 1st-round pick along with contributions from defenders Hau’oli Kikaha and Tyeler Davison.
But the 2016 and 2017 drafts have proven to be absolute "gold mines" for the Saints (to use another analogy), when you consider the contribution of the players selected.
Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, and Vonn Bell were the immediately impactful players from 2016.
But nothing can top last year's 2017 Saints Draft, which is already being talked about as one of the best EVER in the entire modern-day history of the NFL Draft and college player allocation.
Last year's fruitful class yielded an incredible collection of top-rated college talent that consisted of names such as Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, and Trey Hendrickson.
Bottom line: the Saints have been blessed with tremendous, impactful players for the last 3 years; proving how very vital it is for teams to get the entire draft process right.
If you don’t have successful drafts, the inevitable result in the end is that it becomes very hard for your team to make the postseason.
Sure you can get lucky via Free Agency on occasion, but ultimately the franchises who build Super Bowl-winning organizations tend to do it the "old-fashioned way": making solid and smart picks in the NFL Draft.
The Saints front office deserves a lot of recognition for their outstanding efforts studying and drafting players that head coach Sean Payton has a “clear vision” for.
It is because of this dedication, that the New Orleans Saints franchise is back to being a Super Bowl contender again.
The hiring of Ireland most specifically, seems to be paying dividends.
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect once the hiring was announced. I knew Jeff was responsible for some "home run picks", but also some "duds" in his tenure with the Miami Dolphins.
But without any doubt, Jeff has come in and done a fantastic job with the organization. I believe this recent 2018 draft class this year (although it's still early yet) will only continue to make the team better.
Loomis has taken his licks from fans for some of his questionable signings in the past, yet he continues to press forward and keep the majority of the key pieces together.
Amongst the Drew Brees drama-filled re-signing campaigns, Loomis has been able to keep the beloved Hall of Fame quarterback in the Black and Gold. In addition, free agent signings of players such as Larry Warford, Ted Ginn, Jr., Patrick Robinson, Alex Okafor, and Craig Robertson have proven to be "home-run" acquisitions.
Throw in the not-so-good signings of players such as Coby Fleener, Jairus Byrd, and Brandon Browner and you are able to see that Loomis is human and capable of mistakes from time to time.
You "live and you learn", as they say.
But the proverbial proof is in the pudding; and the recent success of the New Orleans Saints is one that Mickey Loomis deserves some credit for.
And then of course there's Payton, who just two years ago after 3 straight years of (7-9) losing seasons was thought to be on the head coaching "hot seat" and rumored to be heading out of NOLA; for other possible destinations such as the New York Giants and of course his last team as an assistant, those previously-mentioned Dallas Cowboys.
There was even some speculation that Payton may have been suffering from coaching "burn out"; and needed a change of scenery or even more inconceivable: might have been even contemplating retirement.
But after receiving a "vote of confidence" last off-season from late team owner Tom Benson, Payton rewarded his beloved boss and friend with a Division Championship and a great season that just came up a bit short of being another special achievement for the franchise.
The passing of Benson earlier this year was saddening for Saints fans; and understandably so given his overwhelming presence as the long-time owner of the franchise and one of the city and local region's biggest supporters.
However, I have to believe Mr. Benson is smiling down, knowing that he was able to find the right people to help him run his organization. The New Orleans Saints front office might even be THE BEST IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE right now.
That may change one day, but as of this very moment in time, I believe no other front office anywhere else in the entire NFL, is doing a better job; and if the 2018 draft class comes anywhere remotely close to the 2017 class, the New Orleans Saints’ organization will be set up very nicely for future success.
But even if it isn't, they've rebuilt this team into a championship contender in just 3 years time.
And considering where this team was at right before then, it's an accomplishment that's definitely worthy of our praise.