By Quin Hillyer;

 Those of you just reading this in my Friday newsletter will already have seen the first round of the NFL draft in the books, but those checking out my site before then will especially enjoy comparing the following predictions to the actual draft developments.

What follows is my mock draft for the Saints in 2017. This is not necessarily my own wish list (although I would be happy with it), but what I think comes close to what the Saints might actually do, taking in mind where the draft prospects are expected to go in the draft, taking in mind the Saints’ needs, and taking in mind the mind-sets of Saints GM Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton, as observed for the past 11 years.

Without further ado:

For once, I believe the Saints actually will trade down, not up, in the first round. The deal I foresee is the Lions trading their first, second, and 5th rounders (choices 21, 53, and 165) for the Saints first and seventh round slots (choices 11 and 229).

In round one, spot 21, I see the Saints drafting Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a very solid cover guy with very good speed who tackles hard and well..

In round one, spot 32, I see high-character, smart, workout-superstar DE Jordan Willis of Kansas State. By the way, of all the players in this mock draft, this is the one I most want the Saints to get. He needs a little improvement on technique, supposedly, but he is the best combination of character, leadership, intelligence and raw physical talent that I have seen on defense in many years. And that is really saying something. Personally, I would draft him 21st, not 32nd, but this column is what I predict, not necessarily exactly what I want.

In round two, spot 42, I predict the Saints will take Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara, who runs pretty well from the backfield, is great at catching passes, and who got the best Wonderlic scores (intelligence measurement) of all the top RB prospects. [NOTE: I wrote this before the likely deal with Adrian Petersen. I can STILL see the Saints making this pick even after Petersen. He would be somebody who would provide an instant upgrade from the solid but unspectacular Tavaris Cadet as the swing back, and who could also run well, not just catch passes, meaning defenders wouldn’t be able to just key on him as a third-down receiver.]

In round two, spot 53, the choice is Western Michigan’s OL Taylor Moton, who has played three years at right tackle (where he can back up, and learn from, veteran starter Zach Strief) and also some right guard, where he projects especially well as a pro.

In the third round, spot 76, I see Eastern Washington’s big, tough, glue-fingered WR Cooper Kupp, the NCAA’s all-time leading pass catcher whose only drawback is lack of lightning speed. (Kupp is the grandson of great Saints Guard Jake Kupp, by the way.)

Also in the third round, with the pick acquired from the Patriots, a great choice would be Villanova DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, a guy who needs some development but whose athletic potential/upside is huge.

The Saints have no fourth rounder, but, if the Lions trade goes through, they would have a fifth rounder, slot 165, where the guy they would love is physical Miami Safety Rayshawn Jenkins.

The sixth-round choice — the final for the Saints this year, if they give the Lions their 7th rounder — could be the sleeper QB of the whole draft, a guy with the smarts to learn under Drew Brees for a year or two or three and physical skills that are terrific for the NFL. He’s University of Pennsylvania QB Alek Torgersen (see profile here), who performed brilliantly at the East-West Shrine game last winter.

There you go: Eight choices, four each on defense and offense: Two hugely athletically gifted DEs, one CB with serious All-Pro potential, one Safety who can ably back up and learn from Vaccaro and Bell, an RB who can fill the Darren Sproles role but with better size, a WR with Colston-like ball skills, an offensive lineman who can be molded to replace Zach Strief when the latter retires in another year or two — and a QB with all the tools, physical and mental, to be an NFL star, but who played against weaker college competition and thus needs some time to get accustomed to the speed of the NFL game.

And all of them are slotted exactly in the range where most analysts expect them actually to be selected. These are high-intelligence, high-character players, according to most reports (with the character exception of RB Kamara, who had some early trouble but now gets better character marks along with his high intelligence).

I also expect the Saints to find their usual diamond or three in the rough, with undrafted free agents. Plus, at least one of their Canadian imports from this offseason will likely pan out well, and the returns from injury of CBs P.J. Williams and Damian Swann and edge rusher H. Kikaha may be pleasant surprises.

All in all, I see an excellent 2017 for the Saints.

ADDENDUM, 9:30 a.m. central time, Thursday:

So, now that I have made my predictions, a different question arises. Not: What do predict? But: What would I LIKE to see happen?

Well, my top four targets for the Saints would be, in order, Solomon Thomas, Derek Barnett, Jordan Willis… and Malcolm Butler. The more I see of the cornerbacks, the less I like, although I would be happy, in the right spot, with Humphrey or with Tre’davious White of LSU. But I’ll take Butler over either of them, and I think Lattimore, Conley, and some of the others have potential down-sides that worry me too much.

Alas, I think both Thomas and Barnett will be gone by the Saints’ slot at pick 11. And, unlike when I wrote the prediction above, I now fear Willis will fall somewhere in the high teens or low 20s, rather than still being around at 32.

I do think there are other quality edge players, though, including UCLA’s McKinley and, later in the draft, Kpassagnon (listed above). So while I REALLY want Willis, I still would be willing to trade down — perhaps not as far as 21, although I would consider it for the right price, but certainly as far as 18 (for, say, an extra third this year and fifth next year, or something like that). So let’s say the Saints trade down to 18 and take Willis there. I then would turn around, and, in a heartbeat, trade out 32 for Malcolm Butler, straight up. We would get a proven cornerback who really knows how to play the ball while forcing his man toward out-of-bounds, without penalties — and who has no real character concerns. He won’t need on-the-job training and development like any of the rookies would.

In this scenario, we wouldn’t have the extra second round pick we would get from the Lions, but instead an extra third-rounder. So we wouldn’t have the luxury of taking Kamara — but with Adrian Peterson on board (he wasn’t signed when I wrote the above predictions), the need for Kamara is substantially reduced.

So I wouldn’t wait to take offensive lineman Taylor Moton, listed above, at spot 42.

The draft would then have produced Willis, Butler, and Moton, plus THREE third-rounders, and a sixth and a seventh (and an extra fifth next year). I’d still take Kupp, Kpassagnon, and Torgesen among the five remaining picks. And I’d be thrilled.




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