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After years of draft problems, Saints' rookie class part of solution

LONDON -- Based on the early returns, it sure looks like the New Orleans Saints' 2017 draft class will be their best since their remarkable class of 2006.

They have produced four starters (cornerback Marshon Lattimore, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Alex Anzalone), one major contributor (running back Alvin Kamara) and two minor contributors (defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad).

Of course, it’s way too early to make any bold declarations just three games into the season. But then again, the bar hasn’t been set too high in recent years.

By at least one measure (Pro Football Reference’s “approximate value” rating), the Saints produced the least total value from draft picks of any team in the NFL between 2012 and 2016 -- though that’s not a cut-and-dried way of measuring things, since the Saints also had the second-fewest total picks in the NFL during that span, partly due to the two second-round picks they lost as part of the NFL’s bounty punishments.

The Saints rank tied for 26th in total AV since 2013 and 31st since 2014 (when the bounty punishments were no longer a factor).

Regardless of how you measure it, it’s clear the Saints’ draft misses have become a big part of their downfall during three straight 7-9 seasons -- especially their 2014 class, which produced only one player with an AV higher than 0 (receiver Brandin Cooks).

And it’s not just the fans or media who feel that way. Head coach Sean Payton made a point to single out the Saints’ draft misses when asked last week what has led to New Orleans’ consistent struggles on defense throughout a series of coordinators and players -- though he was quick to add, “That process has gotten better.”

The Saints have revamped their college scouting department in recent years, led by the hiring of assistant general manager/college scouting director Jeff Ireland in 2015. Payton, Ireland and general manager Mickey Loomis work in collaboration on the Saints’ draft choices, among other voices.

No doubt, Payton had standout Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters somewhere in the back (or front) of his mind when he made that statement. As NOLA.com’s Larry Holder reported last week, the Saints had a chance to trade up for Peters in 2015 before they stayed put at No. 31 and drafted linebacker Stephone Anthony. I have also heard in the past that missing on Peters stuck in Payton’s craw.

While Peters has gone to two Pro Bowls in two years, Anthony was traded last week to the Miami Dolphins for a fifth-round pick.

And with the Saints set to reunite with Anthony this week in London, I decided to do a deeper dive into their recent draft history.

Even though AV is an imperfect measure, it’s at least impartial. And ESPN Stats & Information keeps a detailed database of the AV of each player drafted, which makes for some handy comparisons.

Pro Football Reference created the rating system as a way to try to compare players at different positions (and through different eras). Drew Brees, by the way, is tied with linebacker Ray Lewis for eighth place in NFL history with a career AV of 223.

Here are some of the highlights of what I found:

  • The 2014 draft class was New Orleans’ only real disaster (a total AV of 26, which ranks dead last in the NFL). The big whiff that year was second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who has so far produced an AV of zero.

  • The Saints’ 2012 class ranked 28th, but that’s largely because they didn’t have a first-round pick (traded to move up for Mark Ingram in 2011) or a second-round pick (bounty punishment) that year. Other than that, they ranked 22nd in 2011, tied for 14th in 2013, 14th in 2015 and tied for 17th in 2016. About average.

  • The Saints have fared OK with their first-round picks. They rank tied for seventh in the NFL with the New England Patriots in first-round AV since 2011 (155) and eighth since 2013 (69). And that doesn’t even count this year’s pair of first-round picks, Lattimore and Ramczyk.

  • The lower rounds have been worse to the Saints. Though they’ve had some good ones since 2011 (wide receiver Michael Thomas in Round 2, offensive tackle Terron Armstead in Round 3, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks in Round 3, wide receiver Kenny Stills in Round 5), they had 10 draft picks that have so far produced an AV of 0 between 2011 and 2015 and four others who have produced a 1.

  • Two of the teams ranked below the Saints since 2013 are the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. But surprisingly, the more successful Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos also rank lower.

Here is a year-by-year breakdown of the Saints’ recent classes, including each player’s draft round and total career AV through the 2016 season:

2017: AV not determined yet 1. CB Marshon Lattimore. 1. OT Ryan Ramczyk. 2. S Marcus Williams. 3. RB Alvin Kamara. 3. LB Alex Anzalone. 3. DE Trey Hendrickson. 6. DE Al-Quadin Muhammad.

2016: Total AV 16 (tied for 17th in NFL) 1. DT Sheldon Rankins (1). 2. WR Michael Thomas (10). 2. S Vonn Bell (4). 4. DT David Onyemata (1). 7. RB Daniel Lasco (0).

2015: Total AV 38 (14th in NFL) 1. OL Andrus Peat (16). 1. LB Stephone Anthony (8). 2. DE Hau'oli Kikaha (4). 3. QB Garrett Grayson (0). 3. CB P.J. Williams (1). 5. DE Davis Tull (0). 5. DT Tyeler Davison (7). 5. CB Damian Swann (1). 7. RB/KR Marcus Murphy (1).

2014: Total AV 26 (32nd in NFL) 1. WR Brandin Cooks (25). 2. CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (0). 4. LB Khairi Fortt (0). 5. S Vinnie Sunseri (0). 5. LB Ronald Powell (1). 6. OT Tavon Rooks (0).

2013: Total AV 76 (tied for 14th in NFL) 1. S Kenny Vaccaro (19). 3. OT Terron Armstead (23). 3. DT John Jenkins (11). 5. WR Kenny Stills (23). 6. OLB Rufus Johnson (0).

2012: Total AV 48 (28th in NFL) 3. DT Akiem Hicks (26). 4. WR Nick Toon (3). 5. DB Corey White (13). 6. OL Andrew Tiller (6). 7. OT Marcel Jones (0).

2011: Total AV 93 (22nd in NFL) 1. DE Cameron Jordan (49). 1. RB Mark Ingram (37). 3. LB Martez Wilson (3). 3. CB Johnny Patrick (4). 7. DE Greg Romeus (0). 7. LB Nate Bussey (0).