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Saints in perfect spot to land impact player in draft

by | Special to CBSSports.com

Seventeen Pro Bowl appearances.

One Offensive Player of the Year. One Defensive Player of the Year.

And don't forget the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

It's what every team with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft dreams about when it shells out millions of dollars in guaranteed money.

Keep dreaming, because those accolades sit nowhere near the case with the league's top draft pick in the past decade.

Sean Payton and the Saints could be targeting help in the pass rush with their first-round pick. (Getty Images)  
Sean Payton and the Saints could be targeting help in the pass rush with their first-round pick. (Getty Images)  
Forget about that eye-popping résumé for any group of players at top of the first round. Don't go looking for the most productive players and cornerstones of your NFL team at No. 2 either. Skip through the top 10. Then gaze past the top 20. Especially don't look at the success of pick No. 22 (a.k.a. where college quarterbacks go to rot: Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Brady Quinn).

Think lower. Think Kiefer Sutherland. Think No. 24.

The No. 24 overall selection arguably has been the shrewdest and, in turn, the most productive pick of the first round or any other round in the past decade. Sure, not every pick turned into the second coming of Johnny Unitas or even Johnny Appleseed (here's looking at you, Ahmed Plummer and Willie Middlebrooks). But some of the players drafted 24th overall are a who's who of the NFL:

2000: CB Ahmed Plummer, Niners
2001: DB Willie Middlebrooks, Broncos
2002: S Ed Reed, Ravens
2003: TE Dallas Clark, Colts
2004: RB Steven Jackson, Rams
2005: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2006: CB Johnathan Joseph, Bengals
2007: S Brandon Meriweather, Patriots
2008: RB Chris Johnson, Titans
2009: DT Peria Jerry, Falcons
2010: WR Dez Bryant, Cowboys

Five players were or are at the top of their respective positions (Reed, Clark, Jackson, Rodgers, Johnson). Two players can become the next generation of playmakers if they can keep their heads on straight (Meriweather, Bryant), which is becoming a bigger "if" every day. One player has become a solid performer (Joseph). One player has yet to be determined (Jerry), and the other two players hold first-round bust tags.

The No. 11 overall pick can make a hard argument for the draft's most fruitful slot with players like Dwight Freeney (2002), Marcus Trufant (2003), Ben Roethlisberger (2004), DeMarcus Ware (2005), Jay Cutler (2006) and Patrick Willis (2007). Even Dan Morgan (2001) made a Pro Bowl in his injury-shortened career. But there's obviously less guess work involved in finding a can't-miss player at No. 11 than at No. 24.

For argument's sake, here's a peek at No. 20 overall in the past decade:

2000: T Stockar McDougle
2001: S Adam Archuleta
2002: WR Javon Walker
2003: T George Foster
2004: DE Kenechi Udeze
2005: DE Marcus Spears
2006: DE Tamba Hali
2007: DB Aaron Ross
2008: CB Aqib Talib
2009: TE Brandon Pettigrew
2010: CB Kareem Jackson

Bust central, minus one or two exceptions.

Those are the land mines Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and the Saints staff are looking to avoid come April 28 as they sit at No. 24.

New Orleans Saints
Pete Prisco Pete Prisco
To have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl, the Saints have to run the ball better and rush the passer better. Read More >>
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Before Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints were more known for bungling the draft with much higher picks. Previous draft choke jobs by former coaches Mike Ditka and Jim Haslett include trading an entire draft away to move up to draft Ricky Williams in 1999 and shipping away two first-round picks in 2003 to take Johnathan Sullivan, who ate and lazied his way out of the league.

Payton helped change the culture with his first draft in New Orleans by selecting the likes of Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston. The Saints continued the habit of building through the draft in early and late rounds -- with players like Carl Nicks, Malcolm Jenkins, Sedrick Ellis, Tracy Porter and Jimmy Graham -- rather than high-priced free agents.

So there might not be a team better equipped to find another draft gem at No. 24 than the Saints.

The Saints preach every season about drafting the best player available. And if there's a handful of players with a similar grade when it's the Saints' turn, then a specific need could win out. I say 'could' because it has become a rarity that the Saints have reached for a player under Payton.

Payton made no qualms about revealing the Saints' desire for this month's draft to select a pass rusher somewhere along the defensive line or at linebacker. This defensive line class has been touted as one of the deepest in recent memory. Possible available players when the Saints bring up their first-round card include Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson, Georgia's Justin Houston, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward and Baylor's Phil Taylor, to name a few.

So the Saints will likely have plenty to choose from in a need spot. The problem is finding the next star rather than selecting a draft scar with a supposedly deep class.

Fan Poll

Who is the best player chosen at No. 24 since 2000?

Aaron Rodgers
Ed Reed
Chris Johnson
Steven Jackson
Dallas Clark

Total Votes: 24,463

"I don't know that there's a team drafting that will say, 'Well, we feel pretty comfortable with our pass rush,'" Payton said recently. "Just because those guys are hard to find. ... You're really talking about alright, this is your draft class. How many guys can truly rush the passer. Forget about if he's an outside linebacker. How many guys can rush the passer? ... There's probably seven or eight of them that can and 18 that appear they can be able to. The trick is where you get one that can do it. That would be a priority for us."

Then there comes the dilemma of allowing the best running-back weapon slip away in Alabama's Mark Ingram. The Saints already visited with Ingram during the pre-draft process and sometimes Payton can't help himself when it comes to offensive threats.

Historically, Payton has been pretty hesitant to draft a running back; the only two backs taken since he started with the Saints are Bush and Antonio Pittman. The Saints tried to move back into the first round two years ago to take the Cardinals' Beanie Wells but to no avail.

"I don't know if the time of drafting a running back early is gone," Payton said. "Listen, I think Adrian Peterson coming into a draft this year would be drafted higher than he was the last time. But sometimes as you evaluate the college film maybe their role has changed enough to where that's a little bit more challenging position to evaluate."

The Saints found success going the undrafted route with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. But Thomas and Ivory are question marks health-wise going into next season and Bush is an annual injury question.

"Having gone through injuries like we did last year, you appreciate the need to have a number of guys," Payton said. "As we're finishing up, we're down to literally the one healthy back at Seattle when the game ends. Whether it's Chris Ivory or the next free agent you're looking to sign or possibly a guy you're wanting to draft, you're looking."

Meaning Ingram could be a possibility, as he boasts the college credentials to become the next stud player taken at No. 24. Kind of like Reed when he left college. And Clark. And Jackson. And Rodgers. And Johnson.

So the Saints better be on alert. Missing at No. 24 may hurt more than you think.

Yet if the Saints get the pick right like so many others in the past decade, New Orleans could be in line for the next NFL superstar.

Yeah, even bigger than Kiefer Sutherland.


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