By Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
METAIRIE – New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis made sure he revealed very little throughout a pre-draft press conference at the club’s facility on NFL Draft Eve Wednesday, but he may have let something slip.
It was not a direct question, which tend to elicit a non-informative answer at such affairs, such as, when he was asked, “Is there a position group that you’re looking at? And would really like to say, ‘We’re leaving this draft with X, Y and Z.’”
Loomis, whose team has the 27th pick of the first round that begins at 7 p.m. on ESPN and the NFL Network, answered, “Yes,” to that and did not elaborate as he laughed.
Then he was asked, “Would you like to reveal any of those position groups?” And he said, “No.”
But when he was asked toward the end of the press conference how realistic it is for a rookie center to play right away, the Saints’ general manager since 2002 may have dropped a clue.
“I think for us with two veteran guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, it is going to make it easier for a center,” Loomis said. “With a quarterback like Drew Brees, who does a lot of the identifications and makes a lot of the calls, that makes it easier. So it definitely makes it possible, probably a little easier with our team than others.”
More convincing evidence is the fact that the Saints currently do not have a true center on their roster as they did not resign veteran Brian de la Puente, who started at center the last two seasons for New Orleans. The Saints are reportedly in the market for free agent center Jonathan Goodwin, who was with the Saints from 2006-10 and their starting center in the Super Bowl winning season of 2009-10 before playing for San Francisco the last three seasons.
“Obviously, when you are drafting a center, intelligence, mental quickness – those are the things that you want to make sure you are high on before you draft a guy to play that position,” Loomis said.
The Saints have shown interest in center Weston Richburg of Colorado State and Marcus Martin of USC, though both are projected to be second round picks.
The Saints’ last first pick on offense was wide receiver Robert Meachem out of Tennessee in 2007, though it did trade to get a second pick in the first round in 2011 that became running back Mark Ingram of Alabama. Ingram has been a disappointment, and the Saints recently decided not to opt to keep his contract at five years through 2015.
The team is looking hard for a fast wide receiver again as it was weak in the deep game last season. But the Saints may lean toward a center with their late first round pick if as many wide receivers are taken in the first round as projected. ESPN’s Mel Kiper said Tuesday that as many as seven could go in the first round before the Saints get to select, including LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. The Saints may not get to make their first selection until after 10 p.m.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State may still be around when the Saints pick at No. 27 of the first round, but NFL Draft analyst Mike Detillier said the Saints will not go for Benjamin. Detillier sees the Saints taking either outside linebacker Ryan Shazier of Ohio State or inside linebacker C.J. Mosley of Alabama in the first round.
But Saints head coach Sean Payton dropped a hint about what side of the ball he may be leaning to in the draft overall shortly after the season ended last January.
“I think we’re younger on that side of the ball (on defense) that we have been in a while,” he said. “And yet there’s that balance of are you drafting need or are you drafting value? We try to create that separation. If there’s some strong value sitting there, you have to pay attention to it. And yet as we go through this depth chart and look at where are positions we need to improve, I think we’re younger over there on defense than we have been probably in the seven years I’ve been here.”
And since Payton made those comments, the Saints made two major free agent signings on defense - safety Jairus Byrd for $54 million over six years and cornerback Champ Bailey for $7 million over two years.
The Saints chose safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round last year with the 14th pick. The team did not have a first round pick in 2012 as punishment for the bounty scandal. Defensive end Cam Jordan was taken with their first pick in 2011. Cornerback Patrick Robinson was the first pick in 2010, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in 2009 and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis in 2008.
“We’ve had a successful offense, and we’ve struggled on defense at times,” Loomis said to explain the run on defensive players in the past.
The Saints defense in 2013, however, was often ahead of the offense and finished fourth in the NFL in total defense. The offense struggled to protect Brees throughout the season and to score prolifically at points in the season and finished an uncharacteristic 10th in that category.
“So obviously when you go into the draft, and you have one side of the ball that’s struggling over another,” Loomis said, “then you tend to look to that side of the ball.”
The draft continues on Friday at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN and the NFL Network with the second and third rounds. On Saturday, the draft starts at 11 a.m. with the fourth through seventh rounds.
The Saints pick 26th in the second round, 27th in the third round and 26th in the fourth round. They have two fifth round picks – 27th and 29th. It got the extra fifth round pick by recently trading running back Darren Sproles to Philadelphia. They pick 26th in the sixth round and do not have a seventh round pick because the club traded that selection to San Francisco in 2013 for outside linebacker Parys Haralson.