In the Drew Brees / Sean Payton era, the New Orleans Saints have been one of the best teams in the league, winning at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. That other season, of course, was the year Payton was suspended as punishment for “Bountygate”, where the Saints had two different coaches as his temporary replacement, and the fallout essentially led to a lost season. During that 2012 season, the Saints defense was in shambles and, by most metrics, graded as the worst in the NFL. Skip ahead to 2013: Rob Ryan has taken over as defensive coordinator from Steve Spagnuolo, and the Saints now feature a top-notch defense. In this year’s draft the Saints used four of their six picks on defense, specifically targeting players who fit Ryan’s scheme. I’ll discuss two guys I liked that they picked up on days two and three, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ronald Powell.
ROUND 2, PICK 58
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska
Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a natural fit in New Orleans just based on his name. Okay, having covered that, we can move on to Ronald Powell… no? You want to hear more? OK. SJB is a cornerback who fits the new bigger-is-better mold whisked in by the Seattle Seahawks’ championship defense. He stands 6’3″ and plays a physical press technique which Rob Ryan loves to utilize on the outside. For this column, I watched all five of SJB’s tapes available on Draft Breakdown. I saw a number of plays where he played well and some areas where he needs to improve. I’ve left out all running plays because there’s not much to say about them: His play against the run is adequate, with no standout plays or glaring holes.
Let’s start with an area of concern for Jean-Baptiste: his deficiency in running with receivers when he isn’t able to get his hands on them. (Now, as I stated, the Saints are not likely to use him in off-coverage like this, so it may not be a big deal.) In his game against Southern Missouri, SJB plays a ton of off-man coverage. So you see plays like this, where he bites hard on a double move. The receiver drops a perfectly placed ball there, but more to the point, this is not what we want to see out of our cornerback play. In this specific instance, perhaps he was fooled because earlier in the game he jumped a similar route and intercepted it for a touchdown. And on this play, we see SJB simply get burned deep on a slight-hesitation-turned-‘go’ route by second-round pick Allen Robinson. Against the Julio Joneses of the world, this is a touchdown.
Now, by no means does SJB consistently fail in off-man coverage. Again against Allen Robinson, this time in overtime, he mirrors him step for step— admittedly, on a play where Robinson doesn’t get out of his break properly. On another play, while facing one of the craftiest route runners in the nation in Jeremy Gallon, SJB is able to run with him while maintaining his responsibilities the entire time. He plays Gallon very well the entire game. One mental lapse stood out on this play; if you pause right before the snap, you can see only 10 defensive players on the screen, and SJB inexplicably runs with the slot receiver when it is unfathomable that he doesn’t have outside responsibility.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste shines is in press coverage where he’s able to reroute or shut out the receiver. His physicality shows up frequently in the Illinois game. On this play, his jam at the line causes the receiver to completely lose his balance. Here we see him utilize his hands to guide the receiver outside, where he can use the sideline as a defender and shield off any possible idea of an inside move. We see both his strength and weakness on this play, again against Allen Robinson. SJB first gets a nice jam, which forces Robinson further inside; however, both SJB and the safety bite on a double move. Fortunately for Nebraska, this did not result in a touchdown– this time.
The Saints signed center-field safety Jairus Byrd to a 6-year, $54M contract this offseason to pair with the outstanding and versatile Kenny Vaccaro, their first-round pick from the 2013 draft. This pair should be one of the more formidable safety duos in the entire NFL. Rob Ryan’s defense counts on physical play outside with his corners and confusion around the line of scrimmage with multiple different looks up front. With Stanley Jean-Baptiste, I believe they have a player who can step right in and play that left cornerback role opposite Keenan Lewis. And as we’re about to see, with Ronald Powell, they added some flexibility up front as well.
ROUND 5, PICK 169
Ronald Powell, ER/LB, Florida
I first looked at Ronald Powell only a few weeks before the draft. Although he’s listed as an outside linebacker everywhere, Powell was used primarily as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, which is quite incredible when you realize he measures a mere 6’3″ and 237 lbs. His size didn’t seem to slow him down; he matched up reasonably well against the SEC’s offensive tackles, as we’ll see momentarily. In the NFL, I don’t see the Saints using Powell with his hand down often, but I do believe he has the athleticism and versatility to be used a number of ways in Rob Ryan’s defense. I took a look at Powell’s games against Georgia and Miami from 2013 and Florida State in 2011 (he missed the entire 2012 season due to two ACL tears).
On this first play, I want to show why you wouldn’t want to use Powell much as a true defensive end. It doesn’t require much explanation: Miami’s left tackle simply throws him to the ground, so you can imagine what might happen one-on-one against the Tyron Smiths and Duane Browns of the world. This isn’t to say he’s incapable of it, but it’s not optimal at his size. Powell is often much quicker off the snap than the offensive tackle, as in this play, where he gets a hit on Aaron Murray, disrupting a throw which otherwise results in a touchdown. His technique isn’t sharp, but his speed usually gets him there, as it does in this play against Miami. Here, Powell shoots a gap that opens between the tackle and guard and loops around for a sack.
I want you to watch these back-to-back passing plays against Florida State from Powell’s freshman season. In the first play, Powell wastes a number of steps on his path to quarterback E.J. Manuel and, as a result, is swallowed up by the left tackle. On the very next play, Powell attacks the edge from the outset, and at 1:22 you can that the left tackle has to extend his left arm to push Powell out of the pocket. It doesn’t work, as Powell is able to bend completely around the edge for a sack, showing off both speed and strength in the process.
His strength at the point of attack often depends on the size of the player trying to block him. He’s able to overpower weaker tight ends, as he does here tackling the runner for a two-yard loss. Here, he’s double-teamed by a tight end and running back tandem, and is simply unfazed, staying with the blockers to chase the ball carrier and coming off them to make the tackle. Now, against bigger and better run blockers, such as in this play against Georgia, he can be turned to create a path for the runner. If you watch these entire tapes I believe you’ll notice the same theme.
So far we’ve only seen Powell playing on the edge. As I said earlier, I believe his versatility is what the Saints crave. Florida primarily used him on the edges, but they also also moved him all around the place. On this play, Powell is lined up at middle linebacker. Now, make no mistake: when he is playing inside, he is coming on a pass rush, and the offense knows it. Nevertheless, Powell meets the guard at nearly full speed, and through his lower pad level, is able to briefly stun him. With the help of teammate Dominique Easley clearing away both the center and right guard, Powell is able to pressure the quarterback into a throwaway that nearly draws an intentional-grounding penalty. On a similar play against Georgia, he does draw the grounding flag, as he bursts through the gap on the right side of the offense.
Due to his pass rushing acumen, Powell doesn’t drop into coverage particularly often. When he does, it looks more or less something like it does in this play, where all Powell does is move into the flat with the fullback. I didn’t see a single play where he dropped into coverage over the middle or anywhere except the flats. If it happened, it wasn’t worth noting. I do believe that Powell has the athleticism to play in deeper coverages in limited packages. There’s no stiffness in his movements, as I’m sure you’ll agree. At Saints rookie camp, Rob Ryan has been working Powell out at SAM linebacker; you can read about it in this interview from the Saints’ own website, where Ryan also discusses Stanley Jean-Baptiste and the rest of their rookie class.
THE WRAP UP
The Saints only had six picks in the 2014 draft, and as I’ve detailed above, I like both SJB and Ronald Powell. As for the rest: I believe wide receiver Brandin Cooks will immediately be able to contribute to the Saints offense as a nice weapon for Drew Brees. He’s a fairly polished route runner and can get open all over the field (and is crazy fast). His diminutive stature might limit his catching radius and his success on 50/50 balls. I do not see him as the next Steve Smith– perhaps the next Mark Duper, but hey, that wouldn’t be a bad result at all.
I didn’t watch enough of either fourth-rounder Khairi Fortt or fifth-rounder Vinnie Sunseri to comment. (ed note: I watched Sunseri and I saw someone whose instincts, open-field speed, and tackling abilities could make him a special-teams ace. The notes some of our other writers have on Fortt suggest someone whose technique needs improvement and who finds himself out of position, but whose sheer athleticism has been able to make up for it.) The Saints sixth-round pick, Tavon Rooks, is a complete project at offensive tackle. In the only game I watched, Rooks was consistently overpowered by FCS powerhouse North Dakota State’s defensive line. At 6’5″ but only 299 lbs, Rooks will need to add significant core strength before he’ll be able to see the field. Zone Reads editor and Saints homer Nath tells me the Saints have had success developing late-round offensive line picks in the past, and that appears to be the idea behind this selection. (ed: See: Zach Strief, Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans, Jermon Bushrod, Brian de la Puente, Terron Armstead…)
Overall, the Saints had an intriguing offseason. They fortified their defense both via free agency and through this draft class (while also adding a new weapon for the offense). If they are hoisting another Lombardi trophy in New Orleans next year, then it’ll almost certainly be in part because this rookie class was able to produce immediately, along with the continued addition of new players in the secondary and the growth of the ones already there. Of course, in the end, it all comes back to the two guys who have been the foundation of this era of Saints ball: Drew Brees and Sean Payton.