If your household isn’t observing mock draft season just yet, they’re going to sooner or later. The New Orleans Saints are a couple more losses away from locking in a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Half of the quarterbacks on their depth chart have been dealing with injuries and Taysom Hill is going to try and keep at it with a torn tendon in his throwing hand. Broken bones, inflamed joints, and sprained ligaments have been the story of their season.
So I took some time on my Saturday to shift focus to something infinitely more fun than sweating about the ways in which the Saints could lose to the New York Jets next week (which I’ll get back to soon, don’t worry). Here’s my first 2022 mock draft for the Saints, with takes on how they should spend their picks in the first three rounds of selections:
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 25: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on from the sidelines during the second quarter in the game against the Buffalo Bills at Caesars Superdome on November 25, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
I’m going into this exercise with a couple of assumptions about how free agency will play out, which is better than ignoring it altogether like a lot of mock drafts tend to. That’s especially critical for the Saints who actively seek to plug holes on their roster through the free agent market so they can target the best available prospects on draft day.
As for what those assumptions look like (and this is all guesswork, I’m not reporting anything):
Free agency losses include LT Terron Armstead, QB Jameis Winston, LB Kwon Alexander, and WR Tre’Quan Smith (leaving behind $12.9 million in dead money). Between playing well enough to deserve contracts outside the Saints’ budget (Armstead and Alexander), running their course in New Orleans (Smith), and better, healthier options becoming available (Winston), there should be more departures in the spring.
Contract restructures include CB Marshon Lattimore, WR Michael Thomas, RT Ryan Ramczyk, LG Andrus Peat, RB Alvin Kamara, and QB Taysom Hill (saving $64.2 million). Thomas and Peat being restructured is debatable given how unsure their futures with the team should be, but something will change for each of them. I’ll lean conservative in this scenario and follow established trends.
DT David Onyemata, CB Bradley Roby, and DE Marcus Davenport sign contract extensions (saving $20.1 million in 2022 cap space). Roby may be released outright to open a bigger role for Paulson Adebo in his second season, but he’s worth retaining if willing to match the Saints’ price. Davenport’s arrow is trending up despite his injury history and the Saints should try to extend him now at a lower cost than what they may have to pay if he puts a strong season together in 2022.
FS Marcus Williams is issued the franchise tag again, valued at $12.7 million, and later signs a contract extension that lowers that cap hit (once more money becomes available after June 1). He makes significantly more positive plays than negative, and Saints fans who can’t make peace with that need to watch more safeties around the NFL to better appreciate it. He isn’t going anywhere.
DE Cameron Jordan is released or traded after June 1, saving $14.5 million in 2022 cap space (leaving behind $8.1 million in dead money, but creating enough resources to extend Williams). Losing Jordan is really, really tough but it’s becoming difficult to see how he stays in New Orleans without accepting a pay cut. His arrow is trending down and he shouldn’t settle for less than what the team has agreed to pay him — he owes that to himself and his family. The best case scenario may be getting him traded to an AFC playoff contender for a nice return.
The $25.7 million in salary cap space all of these moves leave New Orleans with is put towards acquiring a veteran quarterback (barring a blockbuster trade for an A-lister like Russel Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, targeting a veteran like Denver Broncos free agent-to-be Teddy Bridgewater, or a more-affordable deal for San Francisco 49ers lame duck Jimmy Garoppolo) and at least one wide receiver (Michael Gallup sure was impressive for the Dallas Cowboys last week, but let’s double-dip and sign him as well as a lower-tier option like Green Bay Packers deep threat Marquez Valdes-Scantling) in free agency. Other, smaller additions could be on the way at other positions of need but nothing that really moves the needle.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way — with a new quarterback under center and another receiver or two to reset the depth chart — we can go into the draft with a shorter shopping list.
Round 1: WR Jameson Williams, Alabama
Nov 20, 2021; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) reacts after catching a pass for a touchdown against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s get dangerous. Williams wins in a lot of the ways Brandin Cooks did coming out of college — but he’s doing it in college football’s toughest conference instead of at Oregon State. Williams has been just as impressive for Alabama as his former Ohio State Buckeyes teammates Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave (who will also be picked in the first round). He’s got a real shot at being the first receiver off the board this year, though Arkansas standout Treylon Burks is also in the mix.
But Williams would be my preference for the Saints right now, early in December. That may changes as the draft process continues and more information (especially athletic testing results) becomes available. At this moment he looks like the prospect best able to add a missing element to the depth chart. Deonte Harris has Williams’ speed, but not his size. Marquez Callaway is of a similar stature but lacks Williams’ agility to separate from coverage. Get him into the lineup with Michael Thomas and a splashy free agent addition or two, with Callaway and Harris rounding out the depth chart, and your next quarterback is set up for success.
Round 2: LT Bernhard Raimann, Central Michigan
Central Michigan offensive lineman Bernhard Raimann plays during an NCAA college football game against Eastern Michigan, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
A two-year starter at left tackle for the Chips, Raimann has been projected to be picked in the second round pretty consistently but that’s something which will be cleared up after Senior Bowl week (he’s already accepted an invite) and the NFL Scouting Combine. And look for him to do really well there. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, and has been said to hit 33 inches in the vertical jump; for comparison, Terron Armstead put up a 34.5-inch vertical jump coming out of college.
He’s exactly the kind of explosive athlete the Saints value at this position, and he’s got a fascinating background as a former Austrian exchange student who got his start playing wide receiver in a community football club back home overseas. No team has invested more early-round picks in the trenches than the Saints in recent years. With all the physical gifts needed to succeed, he can develop behind James Hurst and Ryan Ramczyk for a year before entering the starting lineup as Armstead’s long-term replacement in 2023.
Round 3 (compensatory): DL Devonte Wyatt, Georgia
Nov 27, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt (95) tries to tackle Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Dontae Smith (4) during the first half at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
This is the comp pick the Saints will receive after Terry Fontenot was hired as Atlanta Falcons general manager in 2021, as per the NFL’s incentivized policy for minority executive candidate hires. And the Saints use it to invest in a sneaky position of need: defensive tackle. They didn’t adequately replace Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown, with splash plays being few and far between the no-name group of players filling the interior rotation. Even David Onyemata’s return from suspension didn’t add much juice to the interior pass rush.
Wyatt makes sense. He’s been (often literally) overshadowed by his towering teammate Jordan Davis, a likely top-20 selection that I’d love to see the Saints pick if they can get their offense right going into the draft. Wyatt has lined up all over Georgia’s defensive front at around 310 pounds, though his best work has come over center. He’s a heady player who moves well laterally and tracks the football to disrupt both running and passing plays. He shouldn’t be available at the end of the third round, but the Saints would be wise to pounce on him and address their worst position group on defense.
Remaining draft needs for Day 3
New Orleans Saints’ Malcolm Jenkins (27) in action against the Philadelphia Eagles during the third quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Philadelphia. The Eagles defeated the Saints 24-21. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Yeah I’m not even going to try and forecast which prospects will still be on the board once the top 100 picks have been completed. Instead I’ll run through the remaining Saints draft needs after they’ve addressed quarterback (in a meaningful way), wide receiver (two or three times), and the offensive and defensive lines through free agency and the first three rounds:
Safety. Even if Marcus Williams is signed long-term, the Saints need to prepare to replace Malcolm Jenkins in 2023. He shouldn’t be in danger of a cap cut in 2022 but he also isn’t going to play forever. Maybe C.J. Gardner-Johnson can take Jenkins’ spot eventually but it would be a very different range of responsibilities from what he’s used to.
Defensive end. Marcus Davenport and Payton Turner are the starting ends if Cameron Jordan moves on after another down year, but they’ve both missed a lot of time with injuries. So has Tanoh Kpassagnon who is only under contract through 2022. It would be good to find a long-term fix out on the edge, but that’s why the Saints drafted Davenport and Turner so highly to begin with.
Running back. Mark Ingram II will enter the final year of his contract in 2022 and Alvin Kamara has been slowed by knee injuries in two of his last three years, so it’s worth looking for a talented, young, and affordable back with upside on passing downs. Backups like Tony Jones Jr., Ty Montgomery, and Dwayne Washington haven’t built much confidence in spot duty.
Offensive guard. Is Cesar Ruiz going to get a second contract with New Orleans? Maybe, considering Andrus Peat did despite being just as ineffective early in his career. But the Saints should continue evaluating their options and not let the sunk cost of a recent first round draft pick keep them from pursuing an upgrade over a bad player.
Tight end. There’s been a lot of noise from fans online about finding a new tight end, but we’ve got to be patient with the group. Nick Vannett has been solid after making his debut. Adam Trautman still has time to figure some things out. Juwan Johnson has been effective on limited snaps and should continue to develop in his new role. Unless the Saints can find an established, top-tier veteran at the position there isn’t any room for another young tight end.