Round 1, Pick 12: Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
Pre-Draft Grade: No. 6 Defensive Lineman (No. 27 Overall)
Sheldon Rankins was a stretch for the Saints at the No. 12 pick but was brought in to be an immediate impact player on the defensive front. New Orleans has struggled to defend just about anything in previous seasons and the organization felt that Rankins’ big bodied versatility could spark their front seven in the middle of their defense. Unfortunately, Rankins had a lower leg injury (broken fibula) in training camp and would not see the field until the second half of the season. His ability to wreak havoc in the backfield was slowed down by his recovery and his true NFL talent has gone unseen through his rookie year. Appearing in nine games, he racked up 4.0 sacks for the Saints and has shown the ability to be a playmaker in this league. Next year will be the true test for Rankins as he heads into a full offseason of preparing for 2017-18.
Grade: A– to B-
Round 2, Pick 47: Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
Pre-Draft Grade: No. 6 Wide Receiver (No. 43 Overall)
Michael Thomas was overlooked in a strong receiving class in 2016 but proved his worth early in New Orleans. Thomas was a bright spot for the Saints’ 2016 draft class and appeared as if he was paired with Brees for all of his career. The two player’s chemistry was unmatched and led to Thomas catching 92 balls (team leader) for 1,137 yards (2nd) and 8 touchdowns (2nd). Thomas seemed to catch everything and it correlated into him leading the team in catches in 2016. With a receiving core that features speedster Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Coby Fleener, the Saints were unsure how big of a part Thomas would play but by the end of the season he was Brees go-to receiver in clutch moments. No rookie receiver outplayed Michael this year and with Brees as his quarterback, he has the potential to be one of the next best in the NFL.
Round 2, Pick 61 (from Patriots): Vonn Bell, DB, Ohio State
Pre-Draft Grade: No. 11 Defensive Back
Vonn Bell was brought into the Saints’ organization as a reliable backup safeties Kenny Vacarro and Jairus Byrd in hopes of developing Bell into a hybrid safety that can play at the line of scrimmage or back in coverage in three safety sets. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen excels in five defensive back sets and expected Bell, alongside Vacarro, to matchup in the slot as well as rush the quarterback. Byrd struggled throughout parts of the season, which allowed for Bell to gain valuable minutes for New Orleans. As defensive backs dropped like flies, Bell stepped in time and time again; he even started a couple games in place of a struggling Jairus Byrd in the middle of the season. Bell is still young but has untapped potential learning behind the likes of Kenny Vacarro and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Although still raw, Bell had more good plays than bad and grades out better than what was asked of him in training camp this season.
Round 4, Pick 120: David Onyemata, DT, University of Manitoba
Pre-Draft Grade: No. 2 Overall Canadian Player
David Onyemata played a surprising amount of minutes in his rookie year thanks to Sheldon Rankins injury. Onyemata, alongside second-year player Tyeler Davidson, was brought into the organization to stuff the run in between the tackles. Onyemata has the opportunity to be a giant in the NFL but has a very raw skill set that will require extensive dedication to the game to be great. The Canadian product stands at a massive 6’3” 300 lbs. and with the right coaching, has the ability to contribute valuable minutes in the Saints’ run defense. With Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley (if he returns) locked into the defensive tackle spots. Look for Onyemata to gain valuable mental reps behind Fairley’s veteran presence in upcoming years.
Round 7, Pick 237: Daniel Lasco, RB, California
Pre-Draft Grade: No. 37 Running Back
Daniel Lasco was a sleeper pick out of the University of California but has given the Saints’ valuable minutes on special teams this season. He battled through different injuries this season including a head injury and lingering hamstring issues throughout the season. Despite this, Lasco has been effective when active. Inking a four-year deal with the Saints and Travaris Cadet being a free agent this upcoming season, Lasco has an opportunity to not only remain on the Saints’ roster but may even work into the rotation barring another running back being brought into camp. In limited snaps it is hard to evaluate the impact that Lasco has brought to the Saints’ organization. However, he is a hard worker and will have the ability to prove his worth in upcoming offseason workouts.
Impactful Undrafted Free Agents:
Ken Crawley, DB, Colorado
Ken Crawley was brought into camp as star corner Keenan Lewis battled through injuries but with a roster spot open after injuries piled up, Crawley found himself in a starting position for New Orleans. He is a big aggressive corner that the Saints see potential in. Crawley appeared in 15 games this season and started 5, playing nearly 50% of the snaps on defense for New Orleans. The Saints will have more depth in the secondary because of starters coming back from injury. Despite this, Crawley has earned a spot in training camp for the upcoming season. The Saints like his ability to pressure receivers on the snap and with a couple years of experience, he could offer valuable minutes as a backup defensive back for New Orleans.
Tommylee Lewis, WR, Northern Illinois
Tommylee Lewis stands at a miniscule 5’7” but can fly, returning punts and kicks for the Saints in the second half of the season. New Orleans receiving core is filled with raw talent and speedsters so it will be a challenge for Lewis to actually see meaningful receiving stats but his presence on kick returns is an area that the Saints have struggled in recently. Lewis will have to earn his spot on the roster again come next season. However, it seems as if the organization trusts his playstyle and work ethic on and off the field. Lewis has played bigger than his stature this season and will be in line to work out for the Saints’ special teams in his second year in the league.