NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The first Saints draft since the retirement of record-setting passer Drew Brees featured the selections of defensive players in the first three rounds.
That wasn't necessarily by design.
“It’s just the way the draft fell,” general manager Mickey Loomis said. “That’s a product of where you’re picking. When you’re picking 28th, there’s a lot of things that happen in front of you.”
Loomis and coach Sean Payton acknowledged attempting to trade up early for a chance to fill their most pressing need — cornerback — with an elite prospect. But making a deal proved difficult, leading the Saints to instead focus on seeking the most value for each pick, regardless of position.
In the first round, that player was Houston defensive end Payton Turner. The 28th overall choice joins a roster that already has two starting defensive ends. But the Saints value depth on the edge, and Turner is bound to get plenty of playing time as a rookie.
“Obviously, we were trying to move up early in the first round for a specific player, specific position,” Loomis said. “That wasn’t able to happen."
After that, Loomis said, "You’re really just letting the draft come to you and see who’s available. And when it’s our turn to pick, we have three or four guys that we like a lot. But, the guy we liked the most was Payton Turner.”
The Saints didn't draft a cornerback until the third round, when they traded up to get Stanford's Paulson Adebo, who intercepted eight passes in two seasons with the Cardinal before opting out of the pandemic-affected 2020 college season.
It took until late in the fourth round before New Orleans took a quarterback — Notre Dame's Ian Book — with the 133rd overall pick.
Generally, QBs picked that late start their careers on the bench as developmental projects, raising the likelihood Brees' immediate successor would be one of two incumbent veterans, Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill.
Expecting Book to compete for a starting role this season “would be a little bit of a jump,” Payton said. "But we’re not going to ever put a ceiling on what we think a player might be able to do.”
Their final two picks were Kentucky offensive tackle Landon Young in the sixth round and South Alabama receiver Kawaan Baker in the seventh. Neither of those two positions was viewed as particularly lacking in talent by the Saints. But the club values offensive line depth and did cut one starting receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, to help get under the NFL’s 2021 salary cap.
Book sounded thrilled by the prospect of learning the NFL game under Payton and being in the same offense where a similarly undersized QB thrived. At 6-foot, Book is similar in stature to Brees.
“I feel like the league’s changing; you don’t have to be 6-5 anymore and you can make it work,” Book said. "I’m happy that they chose me and I want to prove all of them right for making that decision.”
Both Book and Brees were winners in college, and despite being viewed as undersized in the pros, Brees passed for more yards than any QB in NFL history (80,358).
“I don’t think we treated this year differently because Drew had retired,” Payton said in reference to drafting Book. "We had a real good grade on a player that matched right where we were in the process and it fit.”
The Saints chose to reduce their overall number of picks from eight to six through trades that allowed them to move up in the third and sixth rounds.
“One of the things that we talked about is, ‘OK, what is the path to our roster for a particular player?’” Loomis said. “Is it through special teams? Is it beating out another player that’s currently on our roster? And what are the chances of that?”
Loomis said the Saints worked as hard as ever throughout his two decades with the club to trade up throughout early rounds, only to find asking prices too high for their taste.
“They want a ransom and we’re about making a fair trade,” Loomis lamented. “We weren’t interested in just giving up a king’s ransom for that move.”
While Adebo should get a chance to compete for playing time, the Saints likely remain in the market for a remaining available veteran cornerback to help shore up their pass defense after the loss of starter Janoris Jenkins in free agency.
The Saints also could use more depth on the interior defensive line, having traded away Malcom Brown while letting Sheldon Rankins walk in free agency.
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