New Orleans Saints: 2014 NFL draft

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. handed out his grades for the 2014 draft Insider. He gave the New Orleans Saints a barely above average mark of C-plus (tied for 24th in the NFL).

I don’t necessarily agree with the mark. I thought the Saints nailed their first two picks with receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, so I tend to want to give them a B-plus or A-minus based on those picks alone.

But I also wasn’t surprised to see the Saints’ lower grade from Kiper and other outlets for some predictable reasons.

For one thing, the Saints didn’t really land any “steals” based on where their choices were rated by draft analysts like Kiper heading into the draft -- unless you want to count undrafted receiver Brandon Coleman, who agreed to a deal after the draft. And the Saints had to trade up to get Cooks (they probably would’ve gotten a higher grade if he fell to them at No. 27).

Plus, Kiper in particular wasn’t as high on Jean-Baptiste as some others who might have considered him a steal with the 58th pick.

For another thing, the Saints only made six picks total – and only two in the first two rounds. So clearly, analysts are going to be more impressed by teams that loaded up on top-100 prospects. That’s why the Saints were rated among teams like Seattle, Denver, Carolina, New England and Washington (no first-round pick this year) in the C-plus and C range.

I do, however, agree with Kiper’s final synopsis: “Cooks is a win, and it's a lot of ‘We'll see’ after that.”

No, this class won’t have the same impact in New Orleans as their rebuilding class of 2006, for example. But I thought it was a good haul for the Saints nonetheless. And as I wrote Saturday, I think they addressed five of their top six needs.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints didn't make much of a splash on the final day of the draft Saturday. No big-name players. No quarterbacks. Probably no one that will come in and compete for a starting job right away.

But by my count, the Saints did wind up addressing five of their top six needs in this year’s draft class. Not bad.

Here’s how I had them ranked heading into the draft:

1. Receiver: Check. The Saints traded up to snag dynamic Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks in Round 1. I obviously loved the pick, based on my previous recaps.

2. Cornerback: Check. They drafted a big, long-armed corner in Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste in Round 2.

3. Center/guard: Nope. That’s the one spot the Saints missed out on. Coach Sean Payton said it wasn’t a deep class for centers, and the grades just never matched up. The Saints are high on Tim Lelito's potential, though, and there’s still a strong chance they’ll bring in veteran Jonathan Goodwin for competition.

4. Outside linebacker: Check. They drafted Florida’s Ronald Powell in Round 5. He's not purely a pass-rush specialist, but that’s one of his skills. And Payton said they envision him as a strong-side outside linebacker to start with (Parys Haralson's current job). Powell is a tremendous athlete who was rated as the No. 1 high school player in America by ESPNU four years ago before battling some inconsistency and a torn ACL in 2012. His upside is intriguing.

5. Inside linebacker: Check. Cal’s Khairi Fortt in Round 4. Payton said the Saints envision him as a weakside inside linebacker (David Hawthorne’s current role). He’s another guy who is still more potential than production after missing the 2012 season because of knee surgery (not an ACL, and not expected to be a lingering issue). But he's another impressive athlete who can help on defense and special teams.

6. Offensive tackle: Check. Kansas State right tackle Tavon Rooks (Round 6) wasn’t high among scouting analysts heading into the draft. But the Saints liked what they saw from his athleticism and his potential to grow into his frame. He'll be battling backups such as Bryce Harris and Marcel Jones for a roster spot.

BONUS: I didn’t rank special teams coverage as an individual category. But the Saints got a nice boost in that area with all four of their defensive draft picks -- especially Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri in the fifth round. Sunseri is a strong-safety type who could also potentially see the field in a role similar to former Saints/Alabama safety Roman Harper as a blitzer and in run support.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

METAIRIE, La. -- A wrap-up of the New Orleans Saints' draft. Click here for a full list of Saints draftees.

Best move: Trading up for dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in Round 1. Normally, I preach fans shouldn't expect too much from any draft pick in year one, but Cooks sure looks like he could make a huge impact right away for a Saints offense that suddenly needed some more juice after parting ways with veterans Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIThe New Orleans Saints gained one of the more polished receivers in this draft class in Brandin Cooks, per ESPN's Scouts Inc. profile.
Cooks' combination of college production (128 catches for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State) and dynamic speed (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash) makes the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder another matchup nightmare for coach Sean Payton to play with. Cooks could also take over the Saints' punt-return role -- another area in which they need some help.

But Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said that's more of a bonus than the reason Cooks got drafted.

"Obviously, we were aware of his skill [as a returner]," Loomis said. "But he also had 120-some catches. We're pretty happy with him as a receiver."

Riskiest move: The same answer. The Saints had to trade away a third-round pick to move up from No. 27 to No. 20. Obviously, I think Cooks was worth that risk, but it’s really the only move the Saints made that could qualify as a gamble. Many NFL teams cherish those midround picks.

Loomis, however, has always shown a willingness to trade up when the Saints have a conviction on a player, which was clearly the case in this instance. And he said the Saints' success with undrafted free agents has made them more willing to trade picks over the years.

Loomis said that third-round choice was "not inexpensive," and it would have been "a hard pill to swallow" to give up more than that. That's why the Saints didn't move higher into the teens ahead of the New York Jets, for example.

Most surprising move: Not drafting a center or guard. It wasn't a huge shock -- I ranked receiver and cornerback as the Saints' top two needs, and that's where they went in Rounds 1 and 2 with Cooks and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. But I did expect New Orleans to add an interior lineman at some point in the draft. Payton explained the Saints considered a handful of centers but never came close to drafting one. He said it wasn't a deep draft at the position in general, and the grades never lined up when New Orleans was on the clock.

That leaves the center position as the Saints' biggest question mark right now, but they're high on second-year pro Tim Lelito. I still think there's a strong chance they'll sign free-agent veteran Jonathan Goodwin to compete for the job.

File it away: What a change for Florida linebacker Ronald Powell to come into this draft as an unheralded fifth-round pick (No. 169 overall). Four years ago, Powell was rated as the No. 1 high school player in the country, according to ESPNU, but he never quite lived up to that potential and missed the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL that required two surgeries.

Powell is still an enticing athlete -- and he insisted those setbacks will only serve as motivation.

"I think he is hungry. It's very important to him. You get that sense specifically with that player," Payton said. "For every one of these guys, it's important. But every once in a while, you talk with one of these players, and that just stands out."
METAIRIE, La. -- Once again, the New Orleans Saints filled their most pressing need with the highest-rated player on their board Friday night, drafting Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round.

Coach Sean Payton acknowledged that cornerback was a position the Saints wanted to address in this year’s draft. And the board matched up well when Jean-Baptiste was still available with the 58th pick.

Payton said the Saints probably would have traded down if Jean-Baptiste didn’t fall to them.

“Stan was someone that was separate from the guys on our board. It ended up being a good fit for us,” Payton said.

Payton said the Saints also discussed the idea of trading up in the second round, despite already giving up their third-rounder to get receiver Brandin Cooks in the first round. Payton didn’t specify whether the move would have been for Jean-Baptiste.

Hope for running backs? The Saints didn’t have tunnel vision for corners only. In fact, Payton said the Saints even discussed LSU running back Jeremy Hill at one point -- despite being deep at running back already.

Payton brought that up when he was asked about how far the value of running backs seems to have fallen in recent years. The first running back didn’t go until the 54th pick in this year’s draft.

“Look, there will be another Adrian Peterson,” Payton said. “There will be another really good player that will hard to pass up on. So I think it’s just a matter of team’s needs and how they view or grade a player, but I don’t know if it will be a continuing trend. I think there is a feeling that you can find good running backs later in the draft or possibly in free agency, but that doesn't discount the notion of someone being a really unique and rare skill set of being taken still in the first round. I think that really is just how this class was graded.”

In good company: Naturally, Jean-Baptiste said he was excited to join a loaded Saints secondary that includes future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey and standout players like Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro.

“I’m just happy to be part of it,” Jean-Baptiste said.

When asked specifically about Bailey, he said: “My reaction is I am excited really. Hopefully he will take me in with open arms and he can teach me what he knows.”

And when asked about defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, he said: “I love Rob Ryan, great defensive mind. You never know what he is going to bring, what kind of defense he is coming up with. I think he is just a great defensive coordinator.”

Long, winding road: Jean-Baptiste didn’t take a direct path to becoming a NFL cornerback. Because of academics, he spent time at a prep school and junior college before transferring to Nebraska, where he didn’t play as a redshirt fresman. Then he began his sophomore year as a receiver before switching positions.

But he said both experiences helped mold him.

“It just taught me a lot, growing up, that being on your own you just have to keep working at it, you can’t give up. Junior college really taught me all of that,” Jean-Baptiste said. “Going to Nebraska, it just sunk in and that’s when I started focusing up and understanding that I could go as far as I want to go.

“I think playing receiver helped me with a lot of things. It helped me with ball skills. It helped me read the formations real easy. It helped me break down the tendencies that receivers like to do. It helped me a lot.”

Finding a fit: Payton said the Saints will probably start with Jean-Baptiste in one specific role since he’s still a developing corner, rather than moving him around to a variety of spots.

Payton didn’t specifically address how he expects the competition to play out among Bailey, Corey White, Patrick Robinson and Jean-Baptiste, among, others for the No. 2 and 3 cornerback roles.

“I know Rob and his staff will look closely at what these guys do well,” Payton said. “His skill set as a young player and what we’ve seen is something that you get excited about, especially at that position. Because I mentioned last night there are certain positions, the pass rushers, the left tackles, the cornerbacks. Those [positions] are harder to find and they typically go pretty quick in the draft, especially the first day and a half or two days.”

Perfect name: Jean-Baptiste gets his name from his parents’ Haitian roots. But it sounds like it was made for New Orleans. In fact, New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.
METAIRIE, La. -- The pick: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska

My take: This seems like another terrific fit for the New Orleans Saints. They filled another top need, and they appeared to get great value in a guy that some analysts thought might even sneak into Round 1 because of his upside. Jean-Baptiste (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) has that size so many teams in the NFL have begun to covet in the wake of the Seattle Seahawks' success with big corners, and he has drawn a lot of physical comparisons to Richard Sherman -- though he's still a raw prospect with a ways to develop. ESPN analyst Todd McShay, who had Jean-Baptiste rated 40th overall on his board, said Jean-Baptiste has a chance to be a steal.

If you can't beat 'em … The Saints have been first in line this offseason among teams that are happily willing to follow the Seahawks' blueprint. New Orleans' first big, bold move of the offseason was to spend big in free agency on ball hawking safety Jairus Byrd (the closest thing available to Seattle's Earl Thomas). They also took a flier on future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey in free agency and ponied up to keep physical safety Rafael Bush from leaving as a restricted free agent. Throw in last year's big free-agent signing, cornerback Keenan Lewis, and last year's first-round pick, safety Kenny Vaccaro, and you might have the most loaded secondary east of Seattle. I'm not immediately penciling in Jean-Baptiste ahead of Bailey, Corey White or Patrick Robinson in the starting lineup just yet, but the Saints are loaded with options -- something versatile defensive coordinator Rob Ryan must love.

What's next: The Saints traded away their third-round pick, so they could either stay patient for the rest of the night or use their extra fifth-round pick to move back up if they love a specific player. Their biggest remaining need is for depth at the guard and center positions. They could also use some young developmental talent at linebacker. But from this point on, it will be more about stockpiling talent for the future than trying to fill immediate needs. The Saints currently have four picks remaining (a fourth, two fifths and a sixth).
METAIRIE, La. -- Some leftovers from our conversations with New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and Saints coach Sean Payton on Thursday night:

Giving back to mom: Cooks already earned his first big professional pay day when he posted a blazing time of 4.33 seconds at the NFL scouting combine in February. Adidas awarded him $100,000 for running the fastest time of any athlete wearing a pair of special adidas cleats.

Cooks said that his first big purchase after winning that prize was a new Mercedes for his mother, Andrea.

“She needed one. She was driving around in a 1999 Saturn, and I wasn’t having that anymore,” said Cooks, whose mother raised him and his three older brothers after his father died of a heart attack when he was just 6 years old.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIReceiver Brandin Cooks' potential has the Saints excited -- defensive coordinator Rob Ryan included. "This guy opens your eyes," Ryan said.
Cooks’ "gut" feeling: The Saints said they didn’t bring in Cooks for a visit to their facility because they were already sold on him. In fact, the last time they even spoke was at that February scouting combine.

However, Cooks insisted that he had a gut feeling he might wind up with the Saints. And he said he “knew something special was coming” when he saw them make the trade up to No. 20.

“At the combine when I had a formal interview with them I thought it was special, in the case when I walked out the door and I had that vibe,” Cooks said. “I definitely felt that since the combine. And hey, it happened, so I guess that I went with my gut feeling and that was the right thing to do.”

Same, but different: Cooks is actually the second Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver from Oregon State that the Saints have drafted during the Payton-Mickey Loomis era. The last one was Mike Hass, whom the Saints drafted in the sixth round in 2006.

Hass drew a lot of praise for his ability to catch everything in sight during summer camps. But he ultimately failed to make the roster, in part because he got beat out by a seventh-round pick from that year and an undrafted guy who had been on the Saints’ practice squad a year earlier (otherwise known as Marques Colston and Lance Moore).

Bargain price: The price the Saints paid to move up from No. 27 to No. 20 seemed appropriate based on recent history. They gave up their third-round draft choice (No. 91 overall) to the Arizona Cardinals. Two years ago, for example, the New England Patriots gave up the No. 93 pick to leap from 27 to 21.

However, the Saints’ trade was a bargain compared to a deal that occurred two picks later. The Cleveland Browns gave up the 83rd pick in the draft to move up from No. 26 to No. 22 to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Art of the deal: We know the Saints have always been willing to aggressively move up in the draft when they believe a player is worthy – something Loomis expanded on in his pre-draft news conference. But they wouldn’t do it for just anybody.

Payton said the Saints made a list of players that would be worth moving up to get before the draft. And Cooks was the last player remaining on that list when they made their deal. He said the parameters were in place as the Cardinals’ pick approached. But the Saints weren’t sure Cooks would still be around until after the New York Jets’ pick at No. 18, since New York also had a need at receiver.

“You look ahead of you at the teams, but you also understand that the one unknown is always a team coming back in (and trading in front of you),” Payton explained. “There were a couple of teams that had a need at receiver. The Jets, before we made the trade officially, we really sat on that pick waiting. They went the direction of safety, and that all of the sudden made it apparent that this could happen.”

The Saints now have only five more picks remaining in this year’s draft, which means this will be the seventh straight year that they’ve come out of a draft with less than seven total picks (barring another trade).

But Loomis explained that the Saints have felt comfortable doing that over the years, in part because of their success with their undrafted free agents. Last year, seven of the Saints’ post-draft signings cracked the active roster.

Not pre-planned: Heading into this year’s draft, analysts and personnel executives universally agreed that the class was loaded with talent at the receiver position. But Payton said the Saints didn’t take that into account when they decided to part ways with Moore and runner/receiver Darren Sproles this offseason.

“No I wouldn’t say those decisions were based on the way this draft class shaped up,” Payton said. “Those were tough decisions, one with the trade and the other with a guy like Lance Moore. They weren’t predicated on the depth that we were looking at at all. They were separate.”

Along those same lines, Payton said the Saints didn’t feel like it was a must for them to add a dynamic speed element to their offense to fill the void left by those departed veterans. He said the pick was about Cooks’ value.

“I think we have some guys that can run. I think Robert Meachem can run. I think we have other players that are threats. Kenny Stills is someone. Nick Toon, who had a great training camp and didn’t receive as many opportunities a year ago … Joe Morgan will be coming back off an injury,” Payton said. “We have some team speed. This was more about the makeup of this player. Obviously we think he’s a good football player and a good receiver. He’s very confident.

“We felt there were eight players and maybe a little bit of a space with grades and then another clump. We just saw this guy as a real good fit. There were a few others the same way that might not have been at receiver.”
Grantland’s Robert Mays spent some quality time with new New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks leading up to the draft for this terrific in-depth piece on what makes Cooks tick. It’s a must-read, period. Especially for Saints fans who will soon fall in love with a guy who has been lauded for both his dynamic playmaking ability and his special character.

Cooks opened up about his ambition, his motivation and his difficult upbringing. Cooks’ father died of a heart attack when he was six, which affected he and his three older brothers in different ways. It helped drive Cooks to make the most out of his remarkable athletic gifts.

The piece, which includes interviews with family members and past coaches, also dives into that confident-but-not-cocky attitude that Saints coach Sean Payton mentioned often while describing what New Orleans liked so much about Cooks.

ESPN's New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini also had a good piece on Cooks leading into the draft when he seemed like a prime target for the Jets with the 18th pick.

Payton admitted Thursday night that the Saints thought Cooks might go to New York. But after he slipped past the Jets, the Saints figured they'd get the guy they wanted.
Projecting a team’s second-round pick is probably a futile effort. The further we get in the NFL draft, the more likely teams such as the New Orleans Saints are to target the highest-rated player on their board, regardless of position or immediate needs.

But I’ll go ahead and take a stab here and predict the Saints’ highest-rated player at pick No. 58 will also fill one of their most glaring needs -- USC center Marcus Martin.

Some analysts projected Martin as a possible first-round pick, but I could see him slipping since the draft board is still stacked with talent. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said he still has 18 players remaining that he felt could have potentially gone in Round 1.

Both Martin and Colorado State center Weston Richburg could be worthy of a second-round pick. The Saints won’t be desperate to fill that spot, since they’re high on second-year pro Tim Lelito’s potential and could still add veteran Jonathan Goodwin for competition. However, they’re likely to add some young depth at the center/guard spots somewhere in this draft.

Some other thoughts on possible Round 2 targets for the Saints, ranked in order of likelihood:

Cornerbacks: This ranks as the Saints’ other top need. They’d probably love to see big corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste continue to fall, though he could be one of the top players off the board tonight. Other Round 2 possibilities include Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner, Utah’s Keith McGill, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir and Rice’s Phillip Gaines.

Pass-rushers: Another area where the Saints could find some good value with a lot of intriguing players still left on the board, including Missouri’s Kony Ealy, Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy and Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu.

Offensive linemen: Even if they don’t go for a true center, the Saints could use some young depth across the board here. And there are still several guys left who were projected as possible first-rounders, including UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, Nevada tackle/guard Joel Bitonio, Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and Virginia tackle Morgan Moses.

Tight ends: I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Saints grab a tight end this early -- and NO, I don’t think it would mean they’re worried about Jimmy Graham’s future. But backup tight end Benjamin Watson is getting older, and the Saints like to have three or four on the roster in their versatile offense. So guys such as Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro would be intriguing options if they fall.

Linebackers: The Saints could consider a couple linebackers who aren’t pass-rush specialists, like Wisconsin’s Chris Borland and Arizona State’s Carl Bradford. This is an area where they need to develop some young talent behind vets like Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne.

Receivers: The Saints certainly don’t need another one in Round 2 after trading up for receiver Brandin Cooks in Round 1. But, man, there’s still a ton of talented receivers on the board who will make for good value picks across the league tonight. From Marqise Lee to Cody Latimer to Jordan Matthews to Jarvis Landry to Bruce Ellington to Davante Adams to Allen Robinson to Donte Moncrief to Martavis Bryant to runner/receiver Dri Archer, the list goes on and on.

Defensive linemen: I don’t rank this as a top need for the Saints since they’re loaded with talented starters and young backups alike. However, several of the highest-rated players left on the board are interior defensive linemen -- Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt, Ra’Shede Hageman, Timmy Jernigan, Scott Crichton. So there’s value to be had.

Safeties: It’s not a top need for the Saints, and it’s not a position where the top talent seems to be falling after four safeties went off the board in Round 1. Never say never, though, since defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is creative enough to make room for talented players.

Running backs: They’ll finally start to go off the board tonight, but I can’t imagine the Saints will be in the mix. They’re already so deep at the position and since they added a change-of-pace weapon in Cooks that will help them fill the void left by Darren Sproles.

Quarterbacks: It will be one of the most interesting position groups to monitor tonight as QB-needy teams sort through the second tier of prospects. But it would be a shock to see the Saints use a pick this high on a quarterback, especially after they traded away their third-rounder.

For more on what’s available tonight, check out this content from ESPN’s draft analysts (which requires Insider access Insider):

Kiper’s Round 2 mock | Scouts Inc. Round 2 mock

Kiper’s best available | Todd McShay’s best available
METAIRIE, La. -- Some of the most flattering scouting reports on new New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks came from his competition. Or perhaps it would be better to describe them as his victims.

Immediately after the Saints traded up to snag Cooks, Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro called it a “great pick” and tweeted:

“Almost blew out a hamstring trying to chase this cat @brandincooks down in the Alamo bowl”

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Brandin Cooks led all FBS receivers with 128 catches for 1,730 yards last season.
According to Saints coach Sean Payton, that kind of response was the norm when the Saints’ scouts and coaches polled other players who had gone up against the dynamic receiver while he was at Oregon State.

“When you talk to any of the coaches in that conference -- and our scouts, certainly our coaches when we go to workouts, have that interaction not just with Oregon State but with all the other schools in that conference -- his name keeps coming up as someone that’s a very good football player,” Payton said. “Anytime we are interviewing or visiting with a defensive back, it’s normal for us to ask him at the end of the interview 'Who are some of the better players you went against?' And vice versa, we would ask the receivers the same thing. It was pretty apparent that he was one of those guys.

“Coaches at the school, anyone who has seen him play and anyone who has been involved with his career there have been really positive.”

I mentioned this in my story Thursday night, but it bears repeating that the Saints did not bring in Cooks for a visit to their facility this year because they felt so good about everything they learned from him throughout the scouting process. From on-field reviews to the way people raved about his character and competitiveness off the field, to how impressed the Saints were by Cooks during their personal meeting at the scouting combine.

People always try to read into whether a team brings players in for a visit. But Cooks is an example of why a team might not bring in a player even if they clearly covet him. I remember defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis being a similar example in 2008, partly because then-Saints defensive line coach Ed Orgeron had recruited Ellis to USC.

“He was someone that was as clean and clear as to who he was, the type of player he was, and how he approached the game ... He was really impressive,” Payton said of Cooks, adding that the Saints were high on Cooks even before they met him at the combine.

“His grades came in well before that,” Payton said. “The first time we get to really meet a lot of these players is at the combine. The scouts, however, have spent a whole season really tracking and preparing reports. You do get those impressions, then, when you first meet him. He’s someone you guys will see the first time you have a chance to visit with him, is very impressive.

“He’s very competitive. He was a big part of what they did offensively and often drew safety help [in] coverage. His makeup and his skill set were things that the scouts had obviously seen in the beginning, and as we came to the combine become familiar with. And then you kind of take it from there. ...

“He’s the type of guy that I’m excited that our players will have the chance to meet, and I think he will fit in really well with our locker room.”

As long as he doesn’t blow out any hamstrings.

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints are attacking this offseason with the same aggressive mentality they usually reserve for hapless defenses inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

I love the bold move they made to trade up seven spots for Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in the draft. It filled their biggest need. And it fell in line with their bold move to sign safety Jairus Byrd in free agency.

The Saints have a Super Bowl-ready roster. And they're on the hunt for impact players who can help push them over the edge.

Not to lump too much on one rookie receiver, but Cooks' speed and versatility could help fill the voids left by both Darren Sproles and Lance Moore -- in both the passing game and the return game.

Cooks (5-foot-10, 189 pounds) led all FBS receivers with 128 catches for 1,730 yards last season, earning him the Biletnikoff Award. Then he helped cement his stock with the fastest 40-yard dash time among all receivers at the NFL combine (4.33 seconds).

"They were talking about me playing in the slot, outside and possibly returning kicks. That's my game, so I'm excited about that," said Cooks, who played in a pro-style offense under Mike Riley, a former Saints assistant coach who has a close relationship with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis.

The cost was palatable. The Saints gave up a third-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals to move up.

The reward could be huge.

Coach Sean Payton said this was a case in which the highest-rated player on their board also filled a need. Yeah, they always say that. But it's easy to believe him in this case since the fit seems so perfect.

Payton said the Saints still had three players left in their "cloud" of targets. But Cooks was the only one they had deemed worthy of trading up to get.

"Periodically, you have a real strong conviction on a player, and this was one of them," said Payton, who raved about everything from Cooks' consistency to his toughness to his character.

Cooks' character was lauded by many coming into the draft. And Payton echoed that repeatedly Thursday, saying how well he'll fit into the Saints' culture, as well as their offense.

The Saints didn't even bother bringing in Cooks for a visit since Payton said there were no question marks about him. Only one team visited with Cooks -- the New York Jets.

"He gives us a threat, and he's a guy that can be used in a lot of ways," Payton said. "And more than anything else, he's the type of guy that fits our program."

Likewise, Cooks said he loves the idea of playing with Drew Brees, whom he called a potential Hall of Famer. The best part, Cooks said, is that Brees "gets the ball to all of his players."

When asked how he's so familiar with the Saints' offensive tendencies, Cooks said it's simply because he's a football fan.

"Obviously we all know about the New Orleans Saints," Cooks said. "You can ask anyone. They'll tell you they like to let the ball fly."

And they're clearly not about to slow down now.
METAIRIE, La. -- The pick: WR Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

My take: I love the pick for the New Orleans Saints, who filled their biggest need for both the short term and long term with a dynamic playmaker. Cooks, a small but speedy receiver at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, can help fill the void left by Darren Sproles and Lance Moore out of the slot or wherever creative coach Sean Payton wants to move him around the field. Cooks caught a whopping 128 passes for 1,730 yards last year to earn the Biletnikoff Award.

Saints stay aggressive: I projected this trade for the Saints because it falls in line with their aggressive history under general manager Mickey Loomis and Payton. This is now the fifth time the Saints have traded up in the first round during Loomis’ tenure, dating back to 2003. And they also made a bold move to sign Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. Loomis talked earlier this week about why he feels it’s worth trading up for players when you have a strong conviction on them. And the cost to move up from No. 27 was palatable -- this year’s third-round pick (No. 91 overall).

What’s next: The Saints now have just one pick on Friday since they traded away the third-rounder. Cornerback, center and pass-rushers rank among their top needs. But they’ll take the best available player off their board without reaching to fill any of those needs. Beginning in the second round, it’s unrealistic to address the 2014 needs since guys could take longer to develop. They can probably scratch receiver off the wish list, though.
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' draft needs, ranked in order of importance from 1-12:

Current depth chart:

Marques Colston, signed through 2016
Kenny Stills, signed through 2016
Robert Meachem, signed through 2014
Joe Morgan, signed through 2014
Nick Toon, signed through 2015
Andy Tanner, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2017
Chris Givens, RFA in 2017
Charles Hawkins, RFA in 2017

Draft possibilities: There's no other position where the Saints could help themselves more in both the short term and long term. For the first time in forever, their offense is short on dynamic playmakers after they traded away runner/receiver Darren Sproles. They could use a receiver to rotate into the mix right away and eventually develop into a replacement for Colston.

The Saints could especially use a big-play threat like LSU's Odell Beckham Jr., Oregon State's Brandin Cooks or USC's Marqise Lee -- guys who could also help fill a void in the kick-return game. That's why I projected the Saints trading up for Cooks in this week's ESPN NFL Nation Mock Draft.

However, the Saints will have plenty of talented receivers to choose from in all shapes and sizes throughout the draft. If they stay put at No. 27, they could consider options like Indiana's Cody Latimer, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin or Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews.

Or they could wait until the second, third or fourth round and still grab a highly-rated receiver. That's where ESPN's Todd McShay said the real strength of the receiver depth lies. And most analysts agree that this is the deepest class of receiver talent they have seen in years.

Previous entries:

No. 12 Kicker/punter

No. 11 Quarterback

No. 10 Running back/fullback

No. 9 Safety

No. 8 Defensive line

No. 7 Tight end

No. 6 Offensive tackle

No. 5 Inside linebacker

No. 4 Outside linebacker

No. 3 Center/guard

No. 2 Cornerback
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' NFL draft strategy over the past seven years has definitely been quality over quantity.

In each of those drafts, they've sacrificed at least one pick to either move up for a player or acquire a veteran in free agency. Dating back to the start of general manager Mickey Loomis' tenure in 2002, the Saints have traded up four times in Round 1.

And once again, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Saints move up this year -- as I projected in our ESPN NFL Nation mock draft, where I had them trading up to snag receiver Brandin Cooks.

There are two reasons why the Saints haven't been hung up on stockpiling draft picks over the years, as Loomis explained during his pre-draft press conference Wednesday.

For one, it has always been about a specific player that the Saints felt was worth the cost.

For another, the Saints have confidence in their ability to add quality undrafted free agents -- an area where they've thrived in recent years.

"I wouldn't say that we don't need 'em," Loomis said of the picks that have been traded away. "It's just that we've had opportunities to trade later-round picks for players that can have more of an immediate and short-term impact, and we've done that.

"We know there's a cost to that, obviously, in terms of having a younger player that can come in and be a special teams guy for you for a few years. But I think part of our confidence in trading away some of those later picks is the success that we've had in the college free agent pool. So in a lot of ways, I look at those guys as our later-round picks.

"If we can continue to have success doing that, then it gives us a little more freedom to trade away a sixth- and seventh-round pick and either move up or trade for a player."

The Saints have already traded away one pick and acquired one pick in this year's draft. They sent their seventh-rounder to the San Francisco 49ers last summer for linebacker Parys Haralson. And they acquired a fifth-rounder from the Philadelphia Eagles in March for running back Darren Sproles.

It's always possible the Saints could move down in the draft, too. They've done that plenty of times, as well, during Loomis' tenure as general manager -- just never in the first round.

Loomis and the Saints are always on the lookout for deals that make the most sense based on how their draft board is shaping up. If there's one guy that stands out above the rest, they go and get him. If they've got a cluster of guys ranked similarly, they're more willing to move down.

Typically, those decisions won't happen until teams get on the clock, though.

Loomis said teams will always have pre-draft conversations about the possibility of moving up or down. But they need to remain flexible as the draft plays out.

"We have a pretty good idea of who are the first 12 or 15 guys that are going to come off the board. We have no idea what order, obviously, and there's always a surprise or two. But we have a pretty good idea of the first half, I would call it," Loomis said. "Then, who knows? That part is pretty difficult. We have to be prepared for any and all scenarios."
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints' draft needs, ranked in order of importance from 1-12:

Current depth chart:

Keenan Lewis, signed through 2018
Champ Bailey, signed through 2015
Corey White, signed through 2015
Patrick Robinson, signed through 2014
Rod Sweeting, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016
Trevin Wade, scheduled to become RFA in 2015
Terrence Frederick, RFA in 2017
A.J. Davis, RFA in 2017
Derrius Brooks, RFA in 2017

Draft possibilities: The Saints actually have a good deal of depth at the cornerback spot. But they’re littered with question marks: How much does newly-signed veteran Bailey have left in the tank? Can former first-rounder Robinson bounce back after struggling in 2012 and missing all of 2013 with a knee injury? Can White continue to develop after showing some highs and lows as a part-time starter last year?

Even if the Saints are confident in those veteran players, there's still a strong chance they will draft a cornerback high this year -- possibly as early as Round 1 -- since they need to develop some young talent at the vital position.

New Orleans would probably have to trade up to get one of the top three cornerbacks in this year’s class (Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller). If the Saints stay put at No. 27, they might be able to land small-but-physical TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, whom I have projected to the Saints if they don’t trade up.

They could also consider Ohio State’s athletic Bradley Roby or Nebraska’s physical Stan Jean-Baptiste in Round 1. Or they could wait until Round 2 or later. Among the most intriguing prospects in that range is a small-school guy -- Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir.

Previous entries:

No. 12 Kicker/punter

No. 11 Quarterback

No. 10 Running back/fullback

No. 9 Safety

No. 8 Defensive line

No. 7 Tight end

No. 6 Offensive tackle

No. 5 Inside linebacker

No. 4 Outside linebacker

No. 3 Center/guard
Not many NFL teams have enjoyed the kind of sustained success in the draft as the New Orleans Saints have during general manager Mickey Loomis' tenure.

Sure, they've had their share of hits and misses during Loomis' first 11 drafts, beginning in 2003. But few teams have been able to match the quantity or the consistency of those hits.

Since 2006, the Saints have drafted seven Pro Bowlers. That's tied for fifth among all NFL teams during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Loomis is tied for first among all individual general managers during that span (with Dallas Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones and Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman).

That's why Loomis' run is so impressive -- it requires both success and longevity.

Dating to Loomis' debut in 2003, the Saints have drafted 10 Pro Bowlers. That's tied for seventh in the NFL. And Loomis ranks fourth among all individual GMs over that span -- behind former San Diego Chargers GM A.J. Smith (13), Jones (12) and New England Patriots coach/de facto GM Bill Belichick (11).

Obviously others in the Saints organization deserve credit as well, including coach Sean Payton (hired in 2006) and longtime college scouting director Rick Reiprish (hired in 2004).

The Saints haven't had to make many radical changes to their power structure over the past decade. They've only had to rebuild the roster once during Loomis' tenure (2006). And they've only had three top-10 picks (DT Jonathan Sullivan in 2003, RB Reggie Bush in 2006 and DT Sedrick Ellis in 2008).

Ironically, none of those players went on to be Pro Bowlers -- which is a strike against Loomis and the Saints. But New Orleans has been outstanding further down in the draft.

Here's the list of the guys who have made the Pro Bowl so far -- a list that should continue to grow as impressive young players such as safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Akiem Hicks continue to develop:

2003: OT Jon Stinchcomb (second round)
2004: DE Will Smith (first round)
2005: OT Jammal Brown (first round)
2006: S Roman Harper (second round)
2006: G Jahri Evans (fourth round)
2007: OT Jermon Bushrod (fourth round)
2008: G Carl Nicks (fifth round)
2009: P Thomas Morstead (fifth round)
2010: TE Jimmy Graham (third round)
2011: DE Cameron Jordan (first round)