|Nick Toon's game brings to mind Saints star Marques Colston. (US Presswire)|
Though the New Orleans Saints did not have a first round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, they did originally own the rights to the No. 27 overall, which the club traded to the New England Patriots as part of the trade made a year ago for the Saints to draft Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft.
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Unfortunately, the Bounty-Gate scandal and resulting suspensions have torn away at the foundation of this proud franchise, leaving the team in an awfully tough position to have anything close to the success that fans have been accustomed to seeing since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, among others, began working together.
This is not the space to investigate the little evidence the NFL has offered as proof of bounties Saints' front office executives, coaches and players are accused of harboring. Needless to say, however, with Payton suspended for an entire season, as well as general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games), starting middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (entire 2012 season) and the team's productive pass rushing defensive lineman Will Smith (four games) out for extended periods of time, fans might need a program to recognize the names and faces on the sideline and on the field for the Saints this upcoming season. For the first time since 2008, the Saints could be on the outside looking in when the playoffs arrive, especially if the team can't come to a long-term agreement with Brees, who has been skipping OTAs as a deal is worked out after he was designated with the Saints' franchise tag.
Despite the current negativity surrounding the Saints, this remains a very talented team. The Saints addressed two of their bigger areas of concern with the free agent additions of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and run-stuffing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. While they lost one of the best guards in all of the NFL in Carl Nicks to the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints replaced him quickly with former Baltimore Raven Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs.
For a fan base hungry for positive news, the 2012 draft offered some chance for a distraction. Unfortunately, if the Saints' brass had hopes for a flashy draft that could build up the enthusiasm of their fans, they didn't deliver, instead focusing on mostly developmental prospects, including raw defensive tackle Akiem Hicks from Regina with the club's first pick, No. 89 overall.
The 6-5, 314 pound Hicks is certainly talented. He was highly regarded coming out of high school but was unable to qualify academically, so he played his first two seasons at Sacramento City College. After two impressive seasons there, Hicks was viewed as one of the best JUCO defensive tackles in the country and was heavily recruited by the likes of LSU, Tennessee, Oregon and Arizona before deciding to sign with the Tigers. A mix-up with LSU, however, ultimately led to Hicks signing with Regina, a Canadian college, for his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility.
As one might expect, Hicks dominated at Regina, registering 42 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles while starting all eight games as a senior. On tape, it is easy to see that Hicks' combination of size, strength and athleticism was simply too much for opponents to handle at this level. He remains very much a work in progress in terms of his technique but there are some in the scouting community who believe his upside isn't that far off from that of another former LSU Tiger -- Michael Brockers -- who was selected No. 14 overall by the St. Louis Rams. Of course, Brockers demonstrated his ability to take over games against the likes of Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. Hicks did his damage against Manitoba, Calgary and the University of British Columbia...
Hicks is an intriguing developmental prospect but the rookie seemingly in best position to make an immediate impact for the Saints is the club's fourth round pick, wideout Nick Toon from Wisconsin.
The son of former New York Jets' star Al Toon, Nick doesn't have the level of competition or technique concerns that many of the Saints' other picks have. In terms of his 6-2, 215 pound build, downfield blocking and route-running, in fact, he's rated as one of the more pro-ready receivers of the 2012 class.
Often overshadowed by the Badgers' dominant running game, Toon nonetheless caught 171 passes for 2,447 yards and 18 touchdowns over his collegiate career. While he doesn't have elite speed to fill the hole left by free agent defection Robert Meachem (who signed with the San Diego Chargers), he does have the fluidity and quickness out of his breaks to get open, as well as the toughness to hang on while absorbing a big hit. In these ways, he's similar to the Saints' best top receiver Marques Colston, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2006 out of Hofstra.
Pessimists predict that the Saints' 2012 season could be a tough one. This is a club that has proven the ability to fight through unbelievable adversity before, however. As long as Brees is still in the fold the Saints' passing game -- even without Payton and Meachem -- should be able to continue to post eye-popping statistics. Toon, wearing the familiar No. 88 that his father starred in with the Jets, could prove one of the positive stories for which a fan base eager to see their beloved Saints out of the news and back on the field, can rally around.
The rest of the Saints' picks:
3rd Round - No. 89 overall - Akiem Hicks, DT, Regina
4th Round - No. 122 overall - Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
5th Round - No. 162 overall - Corey White, S, Samford
6th Round - No. 179 overall - Andrew Tiller, OG, Syracuse
7th Round - No. 234 overall - Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
Read more about all of the Saints' picks here.