Saints' top draft choice could be Hayden Hurst vs. Dallas Goedert

The New Orleans Saints will not target a specific position with their top draft choice this year. They rarely do, and that philosophy rarely has failed. They took cornerback Marshon Lattimore and tackle Ryan Ramczyk with their top two picks last year because they were by far the highest-rated players on their board at the time.

Ask any general manager around the NFL, and they’ll tell you that’s the best way to approach the draft. It’s especially true with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who was around when New Orleans drafted running back Deuce McAllister despite already having Ricky Williams on the roster and drafted defensive end Will Smith despite already having Darren Howard and Charles Grant.

So now that I’ve got that disclaimer out of the way, I’m still going to predict that the Saints draft a tight end with the 27th pick in Round 1.

I think tight end is as safe a bet as any one position group for the Saints this year, because there is such a strong likelihood of a marriage between need and “best available player."

Based on my mock projection, I have all three of the top tight ends available when the Saints are on the clock. And most analysts seem to agree that South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki will come off the board somewhere between picks 20 and 50.

The hardest choice for me was whether to go with Hurst, who is considered more of a complete receiver/blocker, or Goedert, who has a higher upside as a dynamic pass catcher.

But even though the Saints’ history suggests they care more about the pass catching than the blocking (see: Jimmy Graham, Coby Fleener), I ultimately decided to go with Hurst – who is widely regarded as the best TE prospect in this year’s class.

Here’s how I arrived at my pick:

13 players almost certainly gone by pick 27 (no specific order):

QBs Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen

RB Saquon Barkley

G Quenton Nelson

DE Bradley Chubb

CB Denzel Ward

S Derwin James

DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

LBs Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds

DT Vita Vea

13 more players I project to be gone:

DE Marcus Davenport

LBs Rashaan Evans, Leighton Vander Esch

OLB Harold Landry

DT Da’Ron Payne

CBs Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson

QB Lamar Jackson

WRs Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore

OT Mike McGlinchey

G Will Hernandez

C James Daniels

Best bet for the Saints:

TE Hayden Hurst (or Dallas Goedert): I went back and forth a couple times (especially when I watched the super-athletic highlights embedded in this terrific feature on Goedert by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert). But just because the Saints once took a chance on a basketball-playing, pass-catching tight end like Graham doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the Jason Witten/Greg Olsen types, too.

Tight end is no longer a “must” for the Saints – as coach Sean Payton described it in March – because they brought back veteran Benjamin Watson as a reliable stopgap. But Watson is 37 years old, and backups Fleener, Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui won’t be around forever either. So if the Saints have a high-enough grade on Hurst, Goedert or Gesicki, they won’t hesitate to grab a guy who can lock down the position for the next 5 to 10 years.

Although New Orleans had the No. 2 offense in the NFL and the No. 5 passing offense last year, it still needs another reliable pass-catcher behind starting receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. Perhaps recently signed receiver Cameron Meredith can be that guy, but his health remains a question mark, so tight end and receiver both remain in play in Round 1. The Saints finished a stunning 19th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate last year after routinely leading the NFL in that category during the Payton-Drew Brees era.

Hurst (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) might not be as dynamic athletically as Goedert or Gesicki (who tore up the NFL combine). But ESPN analyst Matt Bowen called him the most complete tight end in this year’s draft, since he is both a strong blocker and a versatile offensive weapon who even ran some jet sweeps for the Gamecocks.

“He’s a guy they can do a lot of things with in that offense,” said Bowen, who compared Hurst to his former Washington Redskins teammate Chris Cooley, while saying he could play everywhere from H-back to the F, Y and slot positions.

Hurst is 25 years old – which could be seen as a negative or a positive – after he began his professional career as a pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system. ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton wrote a great feature on what led to Hurst's career switch. And as Newton pointed out, the rival Panthers may wind up snatching Hurst before the Saints get a shot at him.

Other thoughts:

  • Edge-rusher is my top-ranked need for the Saints. And if I were in their front office, I’d be extremely tempted by Landry, who could add a dynamic presence that they don’t have – even if he plays just a part-time role. But even if Landry falls to them, I’m not sure if they’d be interested since they have typically shied away from 'tweener types like him, who might fit best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. On the flip side, Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard seems like a no-brainer since he is a bona fide 4-3 defensive end and went to Ohio State (which has become a gold mine for New Orleans). But few analysts seem to project Hubbard as a top-25 pick.

  • The Saints need to get more dynamic in the front seven, in general. So if Payne or linebackers Evans or Vander Esch falls, they should be very interested. Perhaps Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan could be a consideration.

  • Cornerback is more of a secondary need for New Orleans after it signed Patrick Robinson in free agency. But you can never have enough good ones – so someone like Alexander, Josh Jackson or Central Florida’s Mike Hughes could be the fit here.

  • The fan base probably would groan if the Saints used their only pick in the top 90 on an interior offensive lineman. But Ramczyk wasn’t a sexy pick at No. 32 last year, either, and look how well he turned out. A ton of good guards and centers will be going off the board at this stage of the draft, including Hernandez, Daniels, Texas’ Connor Williams, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn and Ohio State’s Billy Price.

  • Obviously the quarterback position can’t be ruled out since Brees is 39 years old and the Saints have done so much homework on top QB prospects in recent years. But the stars would really have to align for the Saints to love a player who is still available at No. 27. Maybe Lamar Jackson if he falls? Maybe Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph? More likely, if they land a QB, it will be someone like Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta or Washington State’s Luke Falk in the middle rounds.