The potential of a first-round draft pick is sometimes more intriguing than the actual prospect filling said spot. Of course, the higher the selection, the better the player is supposed to be. The great thing about the first round of the NFL Draft is that a majority of the players selected are top-notch guys who are destined to make a major impact on the field one or two years into their careers. Each spot, 1-32, will contain a top-40 prospect, including most teams’ first chance at selecting any player they want. It’s a good chance to either address the most important need for a team or select the best overall prospect available to help a position regardless of need.
Mickey Loomis and the Saints know all about the importance of finding quality first-round players. They selected Cameron Jordan, the team’s second all-time sack getter, in the first round back in 2011; just a few spots before him, New Orleans drafted Mark Ingram, one of the most eccentric runningbacks in team history. They also selected defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins 12th overall in 2016, and he has helped the team become one of the best run defenses in the league. More recently, the team has had major success with cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, two players who are towards the top of their respective position rankings across the league. Last year’s 24th overall pick turned out to be an important player in Cesar Ruiz, already helping New Orleans in the trenches. With a lot of roster questions looking, and a lack of cap space to even re-sign some players, the list of players the Saints should look for at 28 is long. Here are five of my top-20 possible prospects for the Saints in the 2021 first round.
Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
For the third draft in a row, the wide receiver position is absolutely stacked. In 2019, it was full of depth, featuring the likes of now-stars AJ Brown and DK Metcalf. 2020 was top-heavy, with three receivers selected in the top-18, and six total in the first round. This included Justin Jefferson, who broke the NFL rookie record for most receiving yards. Unfortunately, the Saints have not drafted a WR since 2018, and have not gone after a receiver in the first round since Brandin Cooks back in 2014. However, a need for a playmaker opposite 2019’s Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas is evident for New Orleans, and there really is not a better way of attaining said player in the first round. My personal favorite receiver option for spot 28 is Rashod Bateman out of Minnesota, who shares many similarities with Thomas in terms of play style.
Standing at 6’2”, 210 pounds, Bateman has a great route tree, specializing in over-the-middle posts and in-routes to find the soft spots in zone coverage. His instincts and hands, which help him with 50/50 balls often, will translate well at the next level. He also just ran an official 4.37 40-yard dash, which is extremely promising. Bateman provides another reliable receiving option, which will be important for the team if Brees decides to hang it up. Having an MT-like X receiver will give the new QB more comfort with his passing decisions. Add in the great speed and agility from Deonte Harris, and the Saints would have a very versatile three-receiver set entering 2021. The Saints could then part ways with Emmanuel Sanders if they needed further cap relief. Either way, add in Marquez Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith to give New Orleans a very deep receiving corps for the first time in awhile.
In his three-year college career, Bateman hauled in 147 passes for 2,395 yards (16.3 average) and 19 touchdowns, 11 of those coming in 2019. He has the measurables, production, and may show the football world incredible drill numbers during Minnesota’s pro day. This would be enticing for the Saints at 28, who will likely have the chance to take Bateman and many other receivers. His dependency and size set him apart from the competition, and his fit with New Orleans would be prime.
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
This may become the consensus first-round prospect preference amongst Saints fans by the time April rolls around. Not only is Jaycee Horn an extremely talented cornerback prospect, he is the son of form Saints-great Joe Horn. He would become a fan-favorite on day one due to his family ties, but his needed utilities will be an even bigger part of his warm welcome. The Saints have multiple impending free agents in their secondary and would save a lot of money by cutting veteran Janoris Jenkins. So it is a no-brainer that CB is a big area of need for New Orleans, and there aren’t many better options than Horn in this draft. Jaycee, from South Carolina, joins Patrick Surtain out of Alabama and Caleb Farley out of Virginia Tech as the three top CB prospects in the 2021 Draft. Different scouts and experts will rank the three in different orders, and Horn is typically the third player on those lists. His potential on the Saints defense is arguably better than the other two, however.
Horn is a true lockdown corner. He has fluid hips, a long reach due to his 6’1” frame, and great awareness. He has shown coverage skills on the outside as well as inside slot leverage in both zone and man coverage. Horn amassed 23 pass breakups throughout his collegiate career and had two interceptions in his final season to seal his outstanding amateur production. His aggressive physicality and athleticism give Horn the ability to line up against just about any type of NFL receiver, giving the Saints a fantastic right-hand man for Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. Getting Horn and locking down Lattimore long term would give the Saints one of the youngest and greatest cornerback duos in the entire league if Horn turns out to be the player many expect him to become.
Horn is a first of a few prospects that may be gone long before 28, but there’s still a good possibility he could fall like other CB’s (Greedy Williams in 2019) have in the past. If teams ahead of the Saints decide to draft more wide receivers, offensive linemen, and even quarterbacks, Horn could be overlooked and become the best player available overall at 28, and the best player by far to help improve the depleted New Orleans secondary.
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Drew Brees has yet to make a decision on his retirement, but his departure from the game seems inevitable. So the question becomes this: How do you replace a player of Brees’ caliber without selecting a top-5 QB, or shelling out a ton of money for a bonafide free agent? You really can’t, but a good place to start is to get a highly capable QB like Mac Jones and let him develop for a year or two under a savvy veteran to build his game up. Jones has major talent – whether or not he will even be available at 28 will be discussed soon – and he will become even better with NFL coaching. Playing under one of the greatest coaches of all-time in Nick Saban at Alabama, Jones had a marvelous 2020 season under center for the Crimson Tide. As a Junior, he completed over 77% of his passes for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions.
Jones had big shoes to fill after Tua Tagovailoa was selected 5th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. He filled those shoes – and then some – by winning a championship for Alabama and taking home the Davey O’Brien Award for best collegiate QB. Jones showed immense talent when it came to intermediate and deep-ball accuracy. He has a soft touch on his passes, being able to connect with his receivers in the perfect spot in stride and/or away from the defender. He averaged 11.2 yards per completion in 2020, something the Saints have missed for the past few years under Brees’ deteriorating arm strength. Jones thrives in the pocket, an aspect the Saints are used to due to Brees. The current offensive line is built strong, and will likely only get stronger.
Similar to last year’s number one overall pick, Joe Burrow, Jones spent his final collegiate season throwing to plenty of NFL-caliber receivers. He was also surrounded by NFL offensive linemen and had a great defense to help. That can be looked at as a negative since Jones will likely be thrown into a situation not nearly as prime as what he had in Tuscaloosa. However, he has one of the strongest and accurate arms in the entire draft class, so it’s a strong possibility a team ahead of New Orleans will select him or trade up. It’s not even out of the question that the Saints themselves would trade up for Jones. Personally, having them sit at 28 or trade back for more draft capital would not be a bad thing at all to see. But landing a player of Jones’ caliber would solve a huge need.
Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
The Saints will not have a lot of cap money to spend on free agents, and there is a real chance they will lose important interior players like Rankins this offseason. Rankins was one of the biggest reasons New Orleans had a top-five rushing defense from 2017-2020 (he was drafted in 2016). The team has made it clear that David Onyemata is DT number-one, but losing Rankins would still be a big blow for this roster. Even with the solid production from Malcolm Roach and Shy Tuttle, the Saints could use a younger player to fill their need at depth inside. And if a player like Christian Barmore is available at the 28th spot, he would not only fill that void, he would be the best player available for any team. The 6’5”, 310-pound redshirt sophomore hailing from the defending national championship team will more than likely be drafted long before 28, but even I will advocate the Saints to draft up for him. If not Horn, then Barmore; his talent and physicality is special.
Barmore showed great speed and short-field agility for a player his size. He’s a master at stunting, something the Saints use often, and his skill combination makes him both a great run-stopping tackle and interior pass rusher. Putting him next to Onyemata and Jordan upfront gives the Saints arguably the best front-four if they’re able to re-sign Trey Hendrickson. It’s exciting to just think about that possibility. The chances of Barmore falling past pick 20 are slim, but if a lot of offensive lineman, cornerbacks, and quarterbacks are taken before spot 25, there’s a glimmer of hope that Barmore could be there for New Orleans’ picking. Free agency and pro days will shed more light on that possibility.
Joe Tryon, OLB/EDGE, Washington
Not only may the Saints lose Rankins and Hendrickson, but linebacker Alex Anzalone is also a free agent, and defensive tackle Malcom Brown could become a cap casualty. Regardless, the team will need a lot of help upfront and in the trenches defensively. There is no better way of solving multiple problems at once than getting a versatile player, and Joe Tryon is the man in this situation. Like Barmore, Tryon is 6’5” and can play as a 3-4 tackle or a 4-3 rushing edge, and Tryon could even have some success as an outside linebacker in some situations. His fluid movement and hip discipline would translate very well to a rushing-linebacker, especially in a Saints system that enjoys exotic blitzes from time to time.
Tryon specializes in bull-and-speed rushing through offensive linemen. His big hands and long reach allow him to punch and extend at the point of attack, then use his quick feet and agility to finish the job. It’s happened time and time again. Tryon opted out of the 2020 NCAA season, but his 2019 campaign was incredible: 8 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 13 games for the Huskies. Putting him on a line with Onyemata and Jordan with Demario Davis backing them up gives the Saints one of the best pass-rushing front-sevens in the NFL. Tryon is currently ranked as a second-round prospect by many experts and outlets, but his raw talent, which cannot be ignored, shows first-round talent. His year off from football may benefit him, or come back to bite him. The Saints took a risk when they drafted project lineman Marcus Davenport in the first round a few years ago, and Tryon falls under that umbrella. He initially seems to have more promise and all-around game on top of versatility, so seeing the Saints pull the trigger on Tryon in the first round would be intriguingly fantastic.