The once futile New Orleans Saints' defense is futile no more. We project them to add talent to the unit in the first round with the 27th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
In just one season defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has brought the Saints defense from one of the league's worst units to a top-five caliber squad.
Ryan's 3-4 defense gave opponents headaches on offense as the Saints finished with the NFL's No. 4 defense, in terms of total yards allowed — a drastic improvement from being No. 32 in 2012. The Saints had the NFL's second-best pass defense, giving up only 195 yards a game. They weren't as effective against the run, ranking 19th in the NFL and giving up 112 yards per game.
A big reason for the struggles against the run is their linebacker unit. Not one Saints' starter at linebacker, inside or outside, finished with a positive grade against the run according to Pro Football Focus. That resulted in a weak and vulnerable unit against the run. The Saints only gave up three 100-yard rushers (Zac Stacy, Doug Martin, and Chris Ivory) during the regular season in 2013, but they were thrashed by Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks for 174 yards on the ground in their 23-15 Divisional Playoff loss in Seattle.
The Saints were outmanned and beaten physically in the loss to the Seahawks, a loss that illustrated the Saints' need to get more athletic and physical within their front seven and, in particular, at the inside linebacker position.
The Saints have other needs, which include cornerback, wide receiver, center, and offensive tackle. The signing of safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year deal immediately sured up some of the holes in the Saints' secondary, making many experts project a cornerback to be selected by the Saints in the first round early on in the mock draft process. The pairing of Byrd and last year's first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro gives the Saints one of the most dynamic safety tandems in the NFL and thus essentially takes away the critical need for a cornerback in the first round.
Wide receiver is also a big need for the Saints as Jimmy Graham's future in New Orleans is foggy with the major differences between Graham and the Saints in regards to a new contract (and what position he qualifies for). Marques Colston will be entering his 8th season in the NFL, and although still productive, he is getting up there in age and will turn 31 this June. Kenny Stills is a player to keep an eye for the Saints in 2014, as he will fill the void of recently released wide receiver Lance Moore. With these three players (Graham, Stills and Colston) on the roster, coupled with a deep wide receiver class in this year's draft, wide receiver seems to be a position the Saints can address in the later rounds.
That leaves the tackle, linebacker and center positions left to consider in the first round. Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews,Taylor Lewan and Zach Martin are all sure to be gone by the time the Saints are ready to pick at No. 27. After these four prospects there isn't a guard/tackle worth taking in the first round. Likewise for the center position, I'd make the argument that there isn't a center worthy of a first or second round selection in this year's draft class.
That leaves the linebacker position, a position the Saints must address with their first pick.
With the 27th pick in the 2014 APC Mock Draft, the New Orleans select...
Player: Ryan Shazier
School: Ohio State
At one point Shazier was considered to be a prospect on the fringe between the late first and early second round. But after an explosive pro day in March, Shazier has skyrocketed up the draft boards. Recently, I have seen him as high as No. 21 to the Green Bay Packers, a pick which our own Evan "Tex" Western made in the SB Nation mock draft a little while back.
Shazier will bring a couple of different elements that the Saints have been missing with their current crop of linebackers.
First, his cover ability from the linebacker position is among the best in this year's draft. The Saints will be playing with a lot of leads throughout the course of the season and will need to sure up their cover abilities, particularly in the middle of the field.
Second, his agility and overall athleticism is scary. At his pro day, the 6-foot-1, 237-pound Shazier broke stopwatches with a remarkable 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. He has an explosive first step, which was a big driving force behind the Buckeyes lining him up at defensive end in multiple formations throughout his career. Although I believe his true position in the NFL will be at inside linebacker, he has the ability to play a number of positions, and in Ryan's hybrid 3-4 defense, he is known to like his defenders to be able to play more than one position.
Shazier was very productive at Ohio State, amassing back-to-back seasons of 115-plus tackles. He lead the Big Ten in stops in 2013 with 143. Although Big Ten linebackers have often struggled in the NFL dealing with the athleticism of players and the pace of the game, Shazier is already an elite athlete and shouldn't have a problem playing at the next level.
Among concerns with Shazier's game is his size -- at 237 pounds, he lacks the elite size and bulkiness teams usually like at the inside linebacker position. He plays overaggressive at times taking himself out of plays. He is a big hitter, but at the same time, he goes for the big hit too often, forgetting basic tackling techniques such as wrapping up.
Overall, the positives to Shazier's game far outweigh the negatives, making him the perfect selection for the Saints at No. 27.
Round One Summary
|1||Houston Texans||Blake Bortles||QB||Central Florida|
|2||St. Louis Rams (via WAS)||Jadeveon Clowney||DE||South Carolina|
|3||Jacksonville Jaguars||Khalil Mack||OLB||Buffalo|
|4||Cleveland Browns||Johnny Manziel||QB||Texas A&M|
|5||Oakland Raiders||Sammy Watkins||WR||Clemson|
|6||Atlanta Falcons||Greg Robinson||OT||Auburn|
|7||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Mike Evans||WR||Texas A&M|
|8||Minnesota Vikings||Teddy Bridgewater||QB||Louisville|
|9||Buffalo Bills||Jake Matthews||OT||Texas A&M|
|10||Detroit Lions||Justin Gilbert||CB||Oklahoma State|
|11||Tennessee Titans||Aaron Donald||DT||Pittsburgh|
|12||New York Giants||Eric Ebron||TE||North Carolina|
|13||St. Louis Rams||Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||S||Alabama|
|14||Chicago Bears||Darqueze Dennard||CB||Michigan State|
|15||Pittsburgh Steelers||Anthony Barr||OLB||UCLA|
|16||Dallas Cowboys||Timmy Jernigan||DT||Florida State|
|17||Baltimore Ravens||Taylor Lewan||OT||Michigan|
|18||New York Jets||Odell Beckham, Jr.||WR||LSU|
|19||Miami Dolphins||Zack Martin||OT||Notre Dame|
|20||Arizona Cardinals||Dee Ford||DE/OLB||Auburn|
|21||Green Bay Packers||C.J. Mosley||ILB||Alabama|
|22||Philadelphia Eagles||Brandin Cooks||WR||Oregon State|
|23||Kansas City Chiefs||Marqise Lee||WR||USC|
|24||Cincinnati Bengals||Bradley Roby||CB||Ohio State|
|25||San Diego Chargers||Kyle Fuller||CB||Virginia Tech|
|26||Cleveland Browns (via IND)||Kelvin Benjamin||WR||Florida State|
|27||New Orleans Saints||Ryan Shazier||LB||Ohio State|
As the first round of the 2014 APC Mock Draft finishes up, we'll run three picks today - Aron is next up this afternoon with the pick for the Carolina Panthers.