The development of last year’s draft class might be even more important.
The Saints’ Class of 2020 was small because of multiple trades -- and it didn’t produce much. First-round guard/center Cesar Ruiz battled some inconsistency after switching from his college position of center to right guard and starting 11 games, including the playoffs. Third-round linebacker Zack Baun and fourth-round tight end Adam Trautman played even smaller roles as backups and special-teamers.
However, the Saints are now counting on all three to make big leaps after letting go of veteran starters at each position.
Ruiz should be the full-time starter at right guard after the Saints released his timeshare partner, Nick Easton. Trautman vaulted to No. 1 on the TE depth chart after the Saints parted ways with both Jared Cook and Josh Hill. And Baun will compete for a starting job at linebacker after the Saints parted ways with Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone.
The good news is that it makes plenty of sense why this trio got off to slow starts as rookies. Not only was the offseason obliterated by the coronavirus pandemic last year, but ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller pointed out that all three players were regarded as more long-term developmental prospects in the first place.
“All three of these guys are similar in that it was more about what they can be, not what they are -- which, when you have a roster as good as the Saints did last year, you can afford to do that,” said Miller, who applauded all three draft choices at the time, recalling that he had a first-round grade on Ruiz, second-round grade on Baun and early-third-round grade on Trautman.
“I think it’s smart that they were looking ahead. This is still one of the best drafting front offices in the NFL, right? So they almost have that trust built in,” Miller said. “These are three guys that could be building blocks.”
Here’s a look at the outlook for each of them:
RUIZ: Round 1, Pick 24
Ruiz came into the NFL with a good deal of experience. However, Miller pointed out that Ruiz was one of the youngest players in the entire 2020 draft class, having just turned 21 last June. Plus, he had to switch positions without the benefit of those offseason practices. Then he missed the final week of training camp and the first week of the regular season with an ankle injury.
As a result, Ruiz’s performance was uneven when he wound up starting those 11 games and playing significant snaps in three others. He struggled more in pass protection. Though he didn’t allow a sack and was flagged for just one holding penalty, Pro Football Focus graded him 75th out of 80 guards when it came to pass blocking.
The 6-foot-3, 307-pounder performed better as a run-blocker for a Saints team that ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game.
“[Heading into the draft] It was, ‘He’s gotta get a little bit better at things. He’s gotta rep out some. He’s a little bit undersized -- you want to see him get a little bit stronger,’" Miller said. "And Michigan’s blocking scheme was not very good, so it was gonna take him some time to learn angles and timing and how to reach people, especially faster linebackers.
“But I gave him a very high grade. I thought he could be a Maurkice Pouncey or Mitch Morse, that type of center whose athleticism was very good, his instincts, his hands. All of that was gonna make him a really high-caliber player. Offensive line can be a tough development point, so I try not to panic when a rookie lineman has a tough go of it.”
The Saints initially considered using Ruiz at center and moving 2019 second-rounder Erik McCoy to right guard instead. But the diminished offseason made that harder to do. And now McCoy has performed so well at center for two straight years that the Saints might just decide to keep Ruiz at right guard permanently.
“I definitely had my ups and downs, my rookie year ... but I've learned a lot and I feel like I'm progressing in the right direction,” Ruiz said late last season.
BAUN: Round 3, Pick 74
Baun started three games as a strongside linebacker when the Saints started games in run-heavy formations. But he played a total of just 82 defensive snaps all season since the Saints typically use just two linebackers.
Baun finished with a total of 12 tackles and one QB pressure (per NFL Next Gen Stats) with zero sacks and zero forced turnovers. His best play of the season was a tackle for loss in the flat against Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas in Week 17.
The 6-foot-2, 238-pounder was also making a position switch from college after he had 12.5 sacks as an edge rusher in his final year at Wisconsin. And he also missed about a week of training camp with an unspecified injury. Unlike Ruiz, however, Baun’s path to playing time is less clear in 2021.
If he stays at strongside linebacker, Baun probably won’t see many more snaps than he did last year. When the Saints drafted him, they said they envisioned him as a potential middle linebacker in the future -- and there is an opening now at that position. But Baun will have to make a big leap to earn the role.
It’s also possible that the Saints could use Baun more as a pass-rusher in sub packages after he rushed the passer only 10 times, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
“He dropped in the [draft] process because of injury concerns and the fact that he was kind of a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none-type guy. [And] he had to get stronger,” Miller said. “But the thing I loved about him, he had a super-high football IQ because he was a high school quarterback and he had to play all over that defense.
“So I think a true linebacker is his role. But you could use him like a Haason Reddick, where, OK, you’re a stack linebacker, but we’re gonna let you go get the quarterback on third down. Players like that make the packaging really interesting. I think that makes him exciting.”
TRAUTMAN: Round 4, Pick 105
Miller had an even more tantalizing comparison for the 6-5, 255-pound Trautman coming out of Dayton.
“I can remember watching him at the Senior Bowl and thinking, ‘There’s some George Kittle to this dude,’” Miller said. “Now, you never want to write that or say that because then people will hear it like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna be George Kittle.’ But ... it’s really easy to fall in love with his game because he’s physical, he’s tough and he’s versatile.’”
Whether or not Kittle is too lofty of a comparison, Trautman might have the most intriguing upside of this bunch.
Although he caught just 15 passes on 16 targets for 171 yards and a touchdown, his playing time increased to about 30 offensive snaps per game in the second half of the season. And the Saints are very high on the growth and potential that he showed.
New Orleans signed veteran Nick Vannett in free agency, but Trautman should be the top pass-catcher at the position. And he should be on the field a lot since the Saints valued him as much for his blocking ability as the 70 passes for 916 yards and four TDs he caught as a senior.
Sure enough, PFF graded Trautman as the No. 1 run-blocking tight end in the entire league last year.
“He can line up in a lot of different positions. Inline, slot, move tight end, he played receiver. And he is a very good run-blocker. That reputation is warranted,” Miller said.
Trautman said late last season that pass protection was the area he was most unfamiliar with coming into the NFL. But he felt he improved in all areas -- and credited former Saints tight ends coach/new Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell for teaching him a ton.
“You know, they kind of eased me into it. And I as I [got] more comfortable, and [played] better, my big thing was to gain their trust so that they feel comfortable with me out there," Trautman said. "You could sit behind a computer in the offseason and learn virtually and learn from the playbook, look at it all you want. But getting used to how we game-plan, what they expect from me in the game plan ... and reps for me more than anything."