Diving deeper into the Saints’ 2021 NFL Draft class

New Orleans Saints (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
New Orleans Saints (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /
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Houston Cougars defensive lineman Payton Turner (98) – Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Houston Cougars defensive lineman Payton Turner (98) – Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

Saints Draft: Round 1, Pick 28 – EDGE Payton Turner, Houston

After standing pat with the No. 28 overall selection, the Saints had perhaps the most surprising pick of the first round, selecting edge rusher Payton Turner from Houston.

It wasn’t necessarily that the team chose an edge rusher that was surprising, as Marcus Davenport still hasn’t proven to be capable of more than a rotational workload, and Cameron Jordan is now 32 years old. Remember, this defense loves to mix and match its pass rushers to keep everyone fresh.

However, Turner wasn’t seen as a first-round caliber prospect by many. He was ranked No. 60 on The Athletic’s consensus rankings, and many thought he could be around for New Orleans’ second-round pick. Now, I’m skeptical of that, as there had been rumors that he was moving up draft boards. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that when taking a “wisdom of the crowds” approach, this appears to be a reach.

Essentially, the Saints are gambling on two aspects of Turner’s profile: his production in a small sample size in 2020 and his athleticism. According to Pro Football FocusTurner increased his pass-rush grade to 91.7 in true past sets this past season, albeit with just 200 total snaps.

Furthermore, he had more sacks (5) than he had in the three seasons prior (4). Generally, you’d be worried about a player breaking out when he’s older than his competition, but it is worth noting that this was Turner’s second season as an edge rusher, as he was used more as an interior rusher earlier in his career. For this reason, it’s easier to excuse him for his lackluster production previously, though you’d still hope for a stronger overall track record.

Really, though, the Saints are doing what they’ve always done — betting on a player’s athleticism. Turner’s relative athletic score was one of the highest of this class, as he measured in at 35 3/8 arms and clocked a 7.01 three-cone time per his draft profile on NFL.com. That combination of length and athleticism is extremely rare, and the justification for selecting him is very similar to it was when they traded Davenport.

That said, edge rusher is a position where production is stable from college to pro, and not only were they more highly-regarded edge rushers available (only two had been selected), there were also other well-regarded players available at other spots.

Had they truly wanted to improve their defensive line, why not Alabama’s Christian Barmore, an interior rusher who has more production, is young for the class, and played in the SEC? Additionally, safety Trevon Moehrig and cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Asante Samuel Jr. would’ve demonstrated an attempt to start to replenish their secondary again, something they haven’t done in recent drafts.

The most polarizing picks generally have a relatively high bust rate, and this is quite a risky selection for a team that needed to hit on their top pick so badly. My model’s top comparison for him is former Jets edge rusher Jordan Jenkins, who has been a solid pass rusher, yet not someone who has generally been coveted on the open market.

Perhaps he can hit on his high ceiling comparisons from my model, such as Montez Sweat, but with Jenkins being the mean comparison, you’d perhaps want to aim for more with such an important pick. There were simply too many alternatives to justify this pick, given the team’s predicament.

Model Rank: 69 (+41)

Grade: C-

Alternative Pick: IDL Christian Barmore, Alabama