They say it takes three years to properly rate a draft class. But it’s clear that the New Orleans Saints are already sold on many of last year’s rookies.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro (first round), left tackle Terron Armstead (third round), nose tackle John Jenkins (third round), receiver Kenny Stills (fifth round), running back Khiry Robinson (undrafted) and center Tim Lelito (undrafted) are all expected to play major roles this season, among others.
In fact, the Saints’ high hopes for those players helped inspire a lot of the dramatic moves they made this offseason:
They traded away running back Darren Sproles, in part because they want to get Robinson more touches.
They released receiver Lance Moore, in part because Stills already supplanted him as a starter last season.
They didn’t re-sign left tackle Charles Brown or spend big on any other veteran left tackles because of their faith in Armstead.
They let center Brian de la Puente leave in free agency, in part because of their belief in Lelito’s potential.
They worked out a significant pay cut with veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, in part because he’ll be in a timeshare with Jenkins.
From top to bottom, it’s entirely possible that this could wind up being an all-time great draft class for the Saints -- though it’s still far too early to bring up any comparisons to 2006, 1986 or 1981.
Vaccaro has generated the most buzz so far. A versatile safety in coverage and run support, he played all over the field as a full-time starter last year and finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson described Vaccaro as a “eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player.”
Armstead could wind up being just as important if he can lock down the critical left tackle job. He showed promise last season after taking over the job in December and improving through each of his four starts.
Robinson might be the most fascinating of the bunch. The product of West Texas A&M exploded onto the scene during the playoffs last year. And Saints coach Sean Payton revealed that his mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin.
Stills and Jenkins look like long-time starters in the making. Lelito could have that same potential. And fellow sophomores like Foster, pass-rusher Rufus Johnson, cornerback Rod Sweeting, linebacker Kevin Reddick, tight end Josh Hill and quarterback Ryan Griffin could all wind up playing bigger roles down the road, as well.
The most important part of the Saints’ 2013 draft class is that it has allowed the Saints to spend big in other key areas -- like the addition of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency.
I spoke with ESPN analyst Louis Riddick recently about whether the Saints have proved that teams can thrive by pushing the salary-cap envelope each year. And he said to make that work, it’s essential that teams keep finding “cheap, affordable labor that is playing at a high level.”
As Riddick pointed out, that’s something the Saints have been great at in recent years. And it’s something teams like the Dallas Cowboys have not been able to do consistently.
“That's a testament to (general manager Mickey Loomis) and Sean and the rest of the scouts down there,” Riddick said.