Strief: Another year, not just another Saints or NFL Draft

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Every year, the NFL draft is exciting.  Who is your team going to get?  What player will make a big impact on your squad?  Are you going to bring in a new exciting toy, or a boring offensive lineman?  These are questions that keep us all on the edge of our seats as we anticipate the moves of our beloved teams.  This year is the same, but oh so different. Everything is different.  For the next three days America will kick their feet up in front of their TVs and tune into their favorite home teams, not just to watch and listen to the draft, but to feel normal for a minute.  Nothing has been normal for anyone for quite a while, but this weekend… something that is very familiar, Saints football. One thing I learned as a Saints player was that I NEVER knew what Mickey Loomis and the rest of our front office was going to do during the NFL Draft. Let’s see if I’ve gotten any better now that I’m retired.  When you start discussing needs on this football team, you need to further define what that word means.  There are few positions on this Saints team that are looking for starters.  That is exactly the position you want to be in when you enter a draft.  What this squad is mostly looking for is depth and future replacements. There is a ton of young talent on this Saints roster and much of it is approaching contract time.  That makes the development of young and thus cheap talent imperative.  None of this is to say there aren’t places for players to come in and make immediate impacts.  There are. The linebacker position in particular has immediate needs for the Saints.  There is also a depth question at the tackle position on the offensive line, as well as at QB.  Then there are the positions you can never have enough of, pass rushers and pass defenders. What puts the Saints in a great position for this draft is their ability to simply try to add the best player they can.  Another successful free agency has put the Saints in the driver’s seat to go best player available.  The difficulty in predicting any team that uses this philosophy is you don’t know who will be available.  You’re not just predicting your team, you’re predicting the situation they will find themselves in.  This year, however, there are a couple of players who not only fit the Saints really well, but I believe at least one will still be available at 24 where the Saints currently sit.  The Saints top need in this draft, in my opinion, is playmaker at the Mike position.  Mike, or middle, linebackers have become devalued recently in the NFL, much like the running back position.  This isn’t to say teams don’t find them important, it’s that they rarely see them as true game changers, and thus, not worth top dollar.  There are, as always exceptions, but ultimately, it’s a position that teams don’t often grab early in the draft. The best mike linebacker in this draft checks all the boxes for the position...great range, instincts, physicality and intelligence.  Kenneth Murray is my pick for the Saints at 24.  Murray, a 3-year starter at Oklahoma, came out after his junior season.  He possesses excellent pursuit traits and is an excellent open field tackler.  He’s an explosive and physical player who’s also effective in blitzing situations.  More of an avoider when taking on blockers, Murray could improve in that area as well as in his man coverage ability. What Kenneth Murray lacks, he makes up for in intangibles.  Murray has reportedly interviewed off the charts and the staff at Oklahoma raves about his leadership and preparation skills. The Saints, more than many teams, value these intangibles greatly.  They ask a few basic questions about each player they sign.  Are they tough? Are they a good teammate? Do they love football? Will they fit in with our locker room?  Murray checks each of those off emphatically. The ability for the Saints to play Murray at the mike position, allowing him to blossom next to the dynamic Demario Davis, should be an attractive proposition.  It is very possible that Murray will be gone a few picks before the Saints as many teams have shown a lot of interest in him, but in a draft rich in tackles and wide receivers, I think he will slip down to the Saints at 24.  Patrick Queen is another option for the Saints here, if Murray is taken. If the Saints really want to fire their fan base up, they could dip their toe into the outstanding pool of receiver talent in this year’s draft.  Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs and Jordan Jefferson should all have been taken by this point, but its Brandon Aiyuk who intrigues me at 24.  One of the most explosive players in college football with the football in his hands, Aiyuk gives the Saints the home run hitter they have lacked in recent years.  He is unique with the ball in his hands and has shown the ability to take even the most routine route to the house.  The thought of adding Aiyuk’s playmaking ability to this offense is downright scary.  He is a little green as a route runner, and is far from a finished product, but the Saints have one of the best in the business teachers at the receiver position in Curtis Johnson. Aiyuk’s natural skills make him an impact player while he develops.  I love the pick here and I think Drew Brees would love to have this type of weapon late in his career. Before I upset everyone, there is a final player I could see the Saints targeting at 24, and he is from just down the road.  There has been much discussion about Patrick Queen being the target for the Saints at 24, but it’s Kristian Fulton that I really like here. The New Orleans native (Rummel) thrived in the aggressive defensive scheme at LSU and would fit in well with the man to man desires of Dennis Allen.  LSU coaches rave about Fulton’s competitive nature and toughness.  Most comfortable in press man, Fulton would be the perfect complement across from Marshon Lattimore, and the Saints depth at the position, would give him an opportunity to learn without having to immediately take a spot in the starting lineup. Kristian Fulton’s competitiveness should allow him to thrive in special teams while honing his coverage skills.  I love grabbing a defensive back out of LSU as their track record in the NFL recently is sparkling.  Maybe this is the year the Saints get that LSU monkey off their back.  All of these predictions assume the Saints sit pat at 24.  I can assure you they will look into moving up, the question is whether the deal exists for that to happen.  The Saints have moved up the past 5 years and have not traded back in the first round in the Sean Payton era.  The Saints have a pretty simple draft philosophy… quality over quantity.  The Saints target players they believe in strongly, and they aggressively move into position to score that player.  This year will be no different. The Saints have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, and now sit with an experienced and veteran team, playing under the same management and head coach for the past 15 years.  With the possible effects of Covid-19, the Saints know they sit in a favorable situation, able to keep schemes the same thus being more prepared than many teams come season time. The Saints are going to be themselves, finding players they covet, and trying to go and get them.  More than anything, I’m excited to watch and see what they do, forgetting for even a little while, that I’m not out in the city with some of you cheering a selection and waiting for the Saints next pick.  The NFL draft is a needed escape for all of us, and I look forward to escaping with you all. Who Dat.*WWL programming note:  Today on the flagship station of the Saints - wall-to-wall coverage of the Saints & NFL Draft.   We kick off at 4pm…the “Saints Draft Preview” - Zach Strief & Deuce McAllister with head coach Sean Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and the Saints top brass.  Then, at 6 o’clock - draft coverage begins - with Bobby Hebert and Kristian Garic…featuring Draft analyst Mike Detillier, Deuce & Zach.  Hear every pick as it happens… plus expert analysis better than the networks.  Saints & NFL Draft - First Round - today - 4 till 11pm on WWL - the BIG 870am, 105.3FM, WWL.com & the RADIO.COM app.