NEW ORLEANS: For Saints, fewer was better in the 2020 draft
NEW ORLEANS — Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis didn't want to invest draft choices in players who'd struggle to make a roster loaded with regulars from three straight division-winning seasons.
After trading all of their picks in rounds four through seven, not to mention a third- and sixth- rounder next season, New Orleans came away from the 2020 NFL draft with just four new players.
Three of them — Michigan center Cesar Ruiz, Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun, Dayton tight end Adam Trautman — were taken in the top three rounds.
“That’s three players that we had in our top 40,” Loomis proclaimed. “It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
The Saints contend they got exceptional value for their two third-rounders: Baun at 74th overall and Trautman at 105.
If so, they should have three players who can contribute immediately to a club trying to help 41-year-old, record-setting quarterback Drew Brees return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2009 season.
“All of these players are off-the-charts smart, tough guys,” Payton said. “Great scores in a lot of different areas relative to the mental side of the game.”
The Saints entered Saturday without any picks left, but traded back into the seventh round, sending next year’s sixth-rounder to Houston to draft Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens 240th overall.
As it turned out, Payton foreshadowed New Orleans' first-round choice in an April 1 teleconference when he said, "interior offensive lineman is something we’ll pay close attention to.”
That was a priority even though the Saints not only have all five offensive line starters from last season under contract, but last month signed left guard Andrus Peat to an extension and drafted starting center Erik McCoy only one year ago.
Payton said Ruiz will compete for a starting job, adding that either Ruiz or McCoy could play guard. The implication is that Larry Warford, who has one season left on his contract, could be under considerable scrutiny as he tries to keep his job.
With no second-round pick, the Saints used their second pick overall to bolster their defense's second level.
The Saints projected Baun being drafted in the top 20 picks of the second round, Payton said. When he fell to the third, New Orleans traded up 14 spots with Cleveland.
“We felt like this was a player that would be hard for us to get because we didn’t have a second-round pick,” Payton said.
Although Baun was more of an edge rusher at Wisconsin — he had 12 1/2 sacks last season — Payton touted the Badger linebacker's versatility.
“I do like his pressure traits, but we see him as someone that can play in a stack position (behind the defensive line) if need be,” Payton said.
TAKING A FLYER
The Saints became the first team since 1977 to draft a Dayton Flyer.
As with Baun, the Saints also expected Trautman, an FCS All-American, to be selected well before the end of the third round. That's when they got him by trading four picks in rounds four through seven to Minnesota.
“For someone who played at a smaller level, you see a dominant player and we see him as someone that can help us,” Payton said.
Trautman, who played quarterback in high school, passed up offers from Harvard and Cornell to play at Dayton, where he received an engineering degree — all while trying to master a new position.
“I didn’t think that it could get to this point where you get drafted on Day 2,” Trautman said. “But I knew the work I put in helped to make that a realistic thing.”
Payton described Stevens as an all-around athlete who could spend early years as a utility player on offense and special teams, much like Saints dynamic reserve QB Taysom Hill has done.
“I’m willing to do anything,” said Stevens, who’d sent the Saints and other teams video of his route-running. “I love the way Taysom plays. If I can do similar things that he’s done for the Saints organization, I’ll be very happy.”
Stevens, who spent four years at Penn State before transferring to Mississippi State, ran plays in college as a receiver, tight end and running back — even a play when he lined up as a receiver and motioned back to quarterback.
“This is a young, developmental talent that we think is a very good athlete and we’ll find the right spot for him on the field,” Payton said. “He’ll get work at some other positions.”
New Orleans had little production from wide receivers beyond All-Pro Michael Thomas last season. The signing of free agent Emmanuel Sanders was meant to address that, but whether Brees will have a reliable third target remains to be seen.
Loomis said the 2020 draft was deep at receiver, but added, “It didn’t come to pass that one of those guys was available when we were picking or there were other guys that we liked a little better.”
-- By Brett Martel, AP
ATLANTA: Falcons use draft to rebuild substandard defense
ATLANTA — After back-to-back losing seasons, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn know they're under pressure in 2020.
They used the NFL draft to remake a defense that drew much of the blame for two straight 7-9 finishes.
The Falcons used four of their six picks on defensive players, including cornerback A.J. Terrell of Clemson in the first round.
The focus on defense continued Saturday, when the Falcons had three picks. Atlanta took linebacker Mykal Walker of Fresno State and safety Jaylinn Hawkins of California in the fourth round and Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh and final round.
“We came into this draft 100 percent looking to bolster our defense,” Dimitroff said Saturday. “We obviously stayed on track.”
Dimitroff said it is rare to focus so heavily in the draft on one side of the ball. A trade with Baltimore for tight end Hayden Hurst and the signing of free-agent running back Todd Gurley addressed the most glaring holes on offense, leaving defense as the draft priority.
Terrell, Walker and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson of Auburn, who was taken in the second round, could win starting jobs. The rookies join Atlanta's prized free-agent addition, edge rusher Dante Fowler, as the biggest names in its defensive makeover.
Matt Hennessy of Temple, a third-round pick, will have an opportunity to win a starting job at left guard.
“We got more athletic, we got faster, we got more explosive,” Dimitroff said.
For the second straight day, the Falcons found a player who can play more than one position. Just as Davidson can shuffle around the defensive line and Hennessy could play guard or center, Walker says he's comfortable at any linebacker spot.
Walker (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) is similar in size to the player he may replace, De'Vondre Campbell, who signed as a free agent with Arizona. Walker said he played 60 to 65% of plays at inside linebacker at Fresno State. He said he's just as comfortable on the outside.
Quinn said Walker has the size to play strongside linebacker but also could play weakside in nickel formations.
For the first time in his 13 years in Atlanta, Dimitroff did not complete a trade during the draft. He made 17 trades in his first 12 drafts, including five to move up or into the first round. He said he was happy to find the players he targeted without having to trade away any of his six picks.
CHIPPER JONES FAN
Hofrichter, from Valrico, Florida, said he grew up cheering for Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves.
“That's why I wear No. 10,” he said.
Hennessy played for coach Geoff Collins for two seasons at Temple before Collins was hired by Georgia Tech in 2019. Collins gave the Falcons a strong endorsement of Hennessey.
“He was very, very positive about him and so was some of his staff,” Dimitroff said.
Quinn said he received a text from Collins on Friday night about “how excited he was to have Matt coming down. He knew what a special competitor he is.”
MACK THE MENTOR
Hennessey's long-term home may be at center, but his first position will be left guard — the one opening on the offensive line. Quinn expects Hennessy will compete with veterans James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Matt Gono. Two 2019 first-round picks, Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom, are expected to start at right tackle and right guard, respectively..
Hennessey's future may rest on center Alex Mack's status. The 34-year-old Mack can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season. For now, Quinn expects Mack to serve as Hennessey's mentor.
“If you are a player walking in to play offensive line in the NFL, this is the type of person that you would want to ask questions to,” Quinn said of Mack. “This is the type of person that you would want to sit next to in meetings.”
-- By Charles Odum, AP
TAMPA BAY: Bucs confident they landed solid help for Brady in draft
TAMPA, Fla. — If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers called it right, Tom Brady was a big winner in the NFL draft.
The Bucs bolstered protection for the six-time Super Bowl champion, acquired a ball-hawking safety to improve an ascending defense, and even added a couple of more playmakers to an already potent offense.
The team feels Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs, Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson are capable of contributing as rookies on a roster with high expectations after signing Brady and trading for tight end Rob Gronkowski this offseason.
“I think one thing that stands out to me is each and every one of these guys love to play football. They’re ballers,” coach Bruce Arians said of a seven-player draft class that included four late-round picks on Saturday.
“They’re going to go out, have fun. They’re gym rats, and they’re smart, aggressive-type players,” Arians added. “When you have that type of draft, each and every guy brings a redeeming quality that’s going to give him a chance to make it.”
First-round pick Wirfs fills the need for a right tackle to shore up an offensive line that yielded 47 sacks in 2019.
Second-rounder Winfield is a versatile defender who lined up all over the secondary in college. Vaughn and Johnson are third- and fifth-rounders, respectively, who are eager to do whatever asked to earn supporting roles.
The Bucs are coming off a 7-9 finish and haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, a 12-year hiatus that’s the second-longest active drought in the league.
Bringing in Brady and adding Gronkowski to an offense featuring Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, as well as a pair of productive tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, has the Bucs thinking Super Bowl.
Arians welcomes heightened expectations.
“I love ’em. I embrace it. I want our guys to feel that we are a team to beat,” the coach said Saturday.
“Everybody that left our locker room in that last meeting knew we should have been playing in the playoffs — that we beat ourselves, and if we could correct the turnover ratio, we would have a chance,” Arians added. “So, yeah, I think everybody who walks in our building is expecting to win.”
IN TRISTAN WE TRUST
The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Wirfs is an exceptional athlete who ran a 4.85-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, where his 36 1/2-inch vertical jump and 10-foot, 1 inch broad jump also were best among offensive linemen.
He’s expected to become an immediate starter at right tackle, but Arians and general manager Jason Licht stressed they won’t rush his development.
“He hasn’t played a game yet in the NFL, so we’ll have to see how it goes,” Licht said. “We’re not anointing him as a future Hall of Famer yet, but we’re just very excited to work with him. ... I’m sure he’s going to come in and know he’s got to earn his keep.”
The Bucs didn’t have a pick in the fourth round after parting with one in the pre-draft trade that brought Gronkowski to Tampa Bay from New England and using another fourth-rounder (No. 117) to move up one spot in the first round to select Wirfs 13th overall. In both cases, Arians and Licht felt the price was worth it.
“A proven winner. Great passion for the game,” Arians said of what Gronkowski brings to the locker room. “History of really taking care of his room, making sure if any young player needs help he’s going to help them. ... A guy that knows what it takes. For he and Tom (Brady) to be together, I think it will be great for our culture.”
Winfield’s father, Antoine Winfield, was a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1999 — the year before Brady entered the NFL with New England. Antoine Sr., who also played for the Vikings during a 14-year career, had an interception off the Bucs quarterback in 2001 — Brady’s first season as a full-time starter with the Patriots.
The Bucs were attracted to Antoine Jr.’s versatility and envision him filling a number of roles for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, much like Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker were used in Arizona while Arians was coaching the Cardinals.
“I can play pretty much anywhere. I can play on tight ends, I can play on slot receivers, I can blitz, I can play in the post,” Winfield said. “Versatility is my biggest asset, and I feel like Tampa Bay is going to use me well that way.”
The Bucs selected four players Saturday, beginning with Johnson in the fifth round, No. 161 overall. Nebraska defensive tackle Khalil Davis was added in the sixth round (194), and Temple linebacker Chapelle Russell (241) and Louisiana running back Raymond Calais (245) followed in Round 7.
-- By Fred Goodall, AP
CAROLINA: Panthers make history, use all 7 picks on defensive players
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers sent a clear message over the weekend: It's time to upgrade the defense.
General manager Marty Hurney and new coach Matt Rhule used all seven draft picks on defensive players, hoping to improve a unit that allowed 29.4 points per game last season, the most in franchise history.
It marks the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that a team has used all seven picks on defense, per ESPN Stats and Info. The 1985 Browns used all seven picks on offense. The Panthers needed to replace nine defensive starters from last year.
Rhule knew it would be a defense-heavy draft for the Panthers, but said the team didn't rule out picking offensive players. He said things just happened to fall that way.
“The great thing is we have this young cohort of defensive guys who are going to grow together in (defensive coordinator) Phil Snow’s system over the next couple of years," Rhule said
Rhule did, however, realize what was happening as the NFL's first virtual draft went on, and at one point teased his offensive staff on Zoom, saying, “Are we even paying you guys for today? Are you guys even doing anything?”
Hurney and Rhule selected defensive tackle Derrick Brown from Auburn in the first round and Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn in the second round. They used their final four picks of the draft on Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr., former West Virginia and XFL safety Kenny Robinson, Baylor defensive tackle Bravvion Roy and Florida International cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver.
Brown figures to be the centerpiece.
The No. 7 overall pick is viewed as three-down player who at 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds is stout enough to take on double-teams up front, which should free up teammates to make tackles.
Brown was one of the most dominant players in the SEC, which had 63 players taken in the draft.
Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner previously coached highly regarded defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud at Georgia, but said “at this stage (Brown) is a better player.”
“He is a combination of Richard and Marcus,” Garner said. “He has the athleticism of Seymour but the stature and power of Stroud. So when you put those two together it equates into a pretty special player. ... He imposed his will on pretty much every opponent that we played this year."
DRAFTING A PRO
Robinson became the first (and perhaps only) XFL player drafted into the NFL when he was selected in the fifth round. After being booted out of West Virginia for violating academic rules, he signed with the XFL's St. Louis BattleHawks, where he had 21 tackles and two interceptions in five games before the league collapsed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and ultimately filed for bankruptcy.
Because he still had college eligibility remaining, he qualified for the NFL draft.
“I knew the XFL benefited me in ways like preparing me to be a professional," Robinson said. "I was a professional football player for like six months before anyone else could be.”
PRIDE AND JOY
Fourth-round pick Pride has a decent chance of starting right away given that the Panthers parted ways with last year’s starting cornerback tandem, James Bradberry and Ross Cockrell.
If Pride does start, he'll play in a division that includes three potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, as well as wide receivers Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Mike Evans.
“You relish that moment to compete against the best because, shoot, the cream is going to rise to the top,” said Pride, the fastest cornerback at the scouting combine this year.
A RHULE GUY
It was no surprise the Panthers drafted a player from Baylor, where Rhule coached last season.
“I knew this was a possibility," Roy said. "He knows what I’m about.”
As for the potential of being paired on the interior defensive line with the mammoth Brown, the 6-1, 332-pound Roy replied, “there’s gonna be some problems for some people, I’ll tell you that right now.”
Gross-Matos’ childhood was marred by family tragedies that he said have shaped his life.
When he was 2 years old, he fell off the side of a boat and his father, Michael Gross, drowned after saving him. He was 29. Nine years later, Gross-Matos’ brother, Chelal, died after being struck by lightning.
“It put the rest of my life in perspective,” Gross-Matos said. “It’s about taking advantage of opportunities every second, every day. Give your best and love the people around you.”
Chinn is the nephew of former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, who was selected to Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.
“He’s definitely been a mentor for me,” Chinn said. “I’ve been able to talk to him about the way life is about to change. From before being an NFL athlete and afterwards and relationships and things like that.”
-- By Steve Reed, AP