The New Orleans Saints' two biggest “musts” in this year’s draft are obvious. They were the same before free agency started -- edge rusher and cornerback.
That's why I paired the Saints with Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett in my mock draft choice at No. 11 and LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White in my mock choice at No. 32 (assuming they don't use that pick to trade for New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler instead).
But drafts aren't always that neat and tidy. The biggest needs rarely match up perfectly with the highest-graded player on the board. And in most years, the "cloud" of players the Saints were considering at a certain pick spanned a variety of positions.
Last year, for instance, they considered cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III before they took defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in Round 1. A year earlier, coach Sean Payton acknowledged that offensive tackle wasn't a "must" when the Saints took Andrus Peat at No. 13. And if Peat had gone one pick earlier, the Saints would have taken defensive tackle Danny Shelton instead.
So where might they turn this year if they don't take the obvious path? I borrowed the Saints' own terminology by categorizing their wish list into "musts, need and wants."
MUSTS: Defensive end, cornerback
These are the only two positions the Saints can't ignore -- and really, they had better address them both among their five picks in Rounds 1-3.
If Barnett doesn't fall to No. 11, there is no obvious edge rusher worthy of that pick. UCLA outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley could potentially be drafted that high, but he's a bit smaller (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) than the Saints have traditionally preferred. Then again, maybe they need a change in philosophy at the position.
Temple defensive end/linebacker Haason Reddick could also be picked that high, but he projects more as an inside or weakside linebacker in the NFL than a pure edge rusher. If the Saints wait until No. 32 or 42, Michigan's Taco Charlton, Missouri's Charles Harris, Wisconsin's T.J. Watt, Houston's Tyus Bowser and Kansas State DE Jordan Willis are among the possibilities.
It's possible the Saints could address cornerback at No. 11 if they have Ohio State's Gareon Conley, Washington’s Kevin King, LSU's White or Alabama's Marlon Humphrey graded highly enough. Otherwise, one or two of those guys could still be in play at No. 32 or 42, along with USC's Adoree' Jackson, Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie and the Florida duo of Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor, among others.
NEEDS: Right tackle, running back, linebacker, safety, nose tackle
Payton specifically mentioned offensive tackle and running back as two areas he'd like to address in the draft. The Saints need a No. 1A running back to pair with (and maybe eventually replace) Mark Ingram after letting Tim Hightower go in free agency. And they will eventually need to replace 12th-year pro Zach Strief at right tackle.
Running back would be a surprise in Round 1, but we know the Saints could find a creative use for a dynamic runner/receiver like Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. Payton told the MMQB's Peter King that he has a "crystal-clear vision" of McCaffrey in the same type of "Joker" role that Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles played in New Orleans. But Payton has also said often that he loves the running back depth in the middle rounds of the draft. Oklahoma's Joe Mixon is a possibility at No. 32 or 42 if the Saints are comfortable with his character off the field. Tennessee's Alvin Kamara is another Round 2 possibility.
Right tackle would be an even bigger surprise in Round 1, but most draft analysts see a drop-off after the top three tackles (Alabama's Cam Robinson, Utah's Garett Bolles and Wisconsin's Ryan Ramczyk). So the Saints might need to strike if they feel the need is great enough and one of those guys falls to No. 32.
As for the defensive positions listed here, there aren't any glaring holes in the starting lineup. But the Saints could make room for a dynamic playmaker at any and all defensive positions, since they so badly need to improve that side of the ball in general.
Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster and Reddick could easily wind up being the highest-graded player at No. 11 -- or Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham, Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, UConn safety Obi Melifonwu or Washington safety Budda Baker at 32 or 42, among others.
WANTS: Quarterback, tight end, wide receiver, 3-technique tackle, guard/center
Quarterback looms as the biggest wild card in the Saints' 2017 draft. It’s not a "must" yet, since Drew Brees is still thriving at age 38. But it is the quarterback position, which puts it in a category of its own.
I'd be surprised to see the Saints pounce as early as No. 11 -- though there is a chance their highest-graded QB could fall that far, whether it's Clemson's Deshaun Watson, North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky or Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes. There’s an outside chance one of those guys could fall to 32, or else the Saints might consider Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer, Pittsburgh's Nathan Peterman, California's Davis Webb, Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs or Miami's Brad Kaaya in Rounds 2 or 3.
The Saints have good depth at the other positions, so they're fine if they ignore them, but they could easily make room for upgrades if they covet a certain prospect -- especially at tight end and receiver, where they're counting on Coby Fleener and Ted Ginn Jr. to pan out. Lastly, I didn't even list specialists, since I doubt the Saints will use a pick on a kicker or punter this year.