The 2015 Senior Bowl is set to kick off Saturday afternoon where most of college football’s top seniors will display their talents to NFL coaches and scouts. The New Orleans Saints have several gaping holes to fill on both offense and defense, so finding some gifted athletes in the draft will be critical for the future of the organization.
In the past, the Black and Gold have been excellent at discovering those hidden gems that somehow make it to the later rounds of the selection process — WR Marques Colston, WR Kenny Stills and G Jahri Evans to name a few. With New Orleans finding little success in last year’s draft, the club looks to get back on track in 2015.
While Sean Payton and the coaching staff will not be in attendance at the big game in Mobile, AL, GM Mickey Loomis, pro scouting director Terry Fontenot, newly acquired executive Jeff Ireland and numerous scouts will be present. With the Senior Bowl less than 24 hours away, let’s take a look at five potential steals that should garner the Saints’ attention.
5. CB Quandre Diggs, Texas (North Team)
5-foot-9 is not the ideal height for a cornerback, but Diggs is certainly not “undersized.” He brings good speed and natural awareness to his position, constantly keeping his head in the game. He played 52 career games at UT with 49 starts, finishing ninth in school history with 11 interceptions.
He is not first-round material, but Texas is known for producing NFL-quality defensive backs, the most recent being Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro. New Orleans is without question in the market for a cornerback, so Diggs is a possibility in the fourth or fifth round. He was arguably one of the top at his position in the Big 12 over the past two seasons, but there are still far better talents that will be taken before him.
4. OLB Martrell Spaight, Arkansas (South Team)
Spaight is a bit shorter than most at his position at 6-0, but he possesses a solid, well-developed frame. He’s balanced and light on his feet while showing great awareness to locate the ball. His size may limit him to teams that run a 4-3 package, but he is a raw, first-class athlete worthy of cultivating.
Spaight was a consensus first-team All-SEC selection in 2014, leading the conference with 123 tackles, the most for Arkansas since 2003. Projected to go anywhere between the fourth and sixth rounds, he is a project that may be worth taking the time to develop.
3. OL Austin Sheppard, Alabama (South Team)
A two-year starter with the Crimson Tide, the 6-foot-5, 324-pound Sheppard allowed only two sacks in two years. He owns surprisingly quick feet that complement his power and size.
While his name hasn’t garnered much national attention, he has done a solid job at right tackle since taking over for D.J. Fluker in 2013. The Saints need to find better protection for QB Drew Brees — Sheppard could be that guy to eventually take over Zach Strief‘s job or make the switch and develop as a guard. He could be a nice little gem available in the third or fourth round.
2. DE Preston Smith, Mississippi State (South Team)
Possible first-round material, Smith isn’t projected to go until the third round. However, he continues to climb up numerous draft boards. In 2014, he earned All-SEC first team honors by coaches and second-team honors by the Associated Press after leading the Bulldogs with nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries. He also intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles and ranked second in the SEC with two blocked kicks.
Smith is not an explosive, first-step rusher, but he does remain versatile and possesses a massive wingspan and strong hands, using various pursuit moves to power through blockers. His versatility is certainly something that will harvest attention.
1. QB Sean Mannion, Oregon State (North Team)
Is this the year the New Orleans Saints draft Drew Brees’ replacement? It’s an idea to flirt with after Brees showed signs of slowing down. In my opinion, last year would have been a great time to do so due to an abundance of depth in 2014’s draft. It may have just been a down year for Drew, as it was for most of the team, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sean Mannion is an interesting prospect.
At 6-foot-6, he possesses the ideal height. Mannion boasts an NFL-type frame, has an incredible arm and is a prototypical drop-back passer with limited mobility much like Brees. Remember Brandin Cooks, the Saints first-round selection in 2014 that was off to a great rookie year before going down for the year with a thumb injury? Yeah, Cooks and Mannion broke numerous school and Pac-12 records together at Oregon State, so the chemistry is there, and it is real.
Mannion received a third-round draft grade after his junior year with the Beavers, but returned to have another great year in 2014. He finished with 3,164 passing yards (tenth-most productive season in school history) and broke the OSU single-game passing yards records against San Diego State. He was Mel Kiper’s No. 2 rated senior QB before the season began after breaking the Pac-12 record with 4,662 passing yards, adding 37 touchdowns as a junior with Cooks as is No. 1 target.
His numbers dropped in 2014, but his potential as a long-term option in the National Football League certainly did not. Mannion is an intriguing prospect that the Saints may really want to consider. He ranks No. 8 all-time in NCAA Division I history with 13,600 career passing yards and owns 18 Oregon State passing records. Projected to go in the fifth, don’t be surprised if a handful of teams still have that third-round grade on him. Other than limited mobility, Mannion does not come with many flaws.
With the Senior Bowl kicking off at 3:00 PM CT Saturday, the anticipation continues to grow on some of these young talents. This game will give the New Orleans Saints an excellent chance to witness these athletes’ abilities first-hand. Could we see one of these guys get picked up by the Black and Gold? The 2015 NFL Draft will be here in no time.
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