Sean Payton believes you must wait several years before grading a draft class.
It takes time for players to develop, to learn that the NFL is a job unlike anything they’re accustomed to, including those from major college programs.
The Saints have had 46 drafts now and we at WWLTV.com wondered about their best picks of all time by round. An (un)scientific poll of 11, ranging from sports writers to life-long Saints fans, was taken and the results will likely not surprise you save for one or two selections or placements.
With the annual NFL draft set for May 8-11, those selected this year have a ways to go match how these players are viewed. But time is on their side right now.
We used rounds 1-7 from 1967 through 2013 and then combined the rounds 8-17 since the current draft only uses seven rounds.
One caveat – this list does not include undrafted rookie free agents. It’s just those drafted by the Saints. That’s why you don’t see Pierre Thomas or Junior Galette or any others not drafted but became big contributors.
ROUND 1: Willie Roaf
Easily the toughest round to choose from when deciding which two players were the best ever picks in the first round.
But Willie Roaf, taken No. 8 in 1993, is one of two former Saints ever to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played in New Orleans for nine seasons (1993-2001) and started all 131 games he played.
Roaf earned Pro Bowl berths from 1994 to 2005 with the exception of 2001 and is a member of the All-1990s Hall of Fame first team. The Louisiana Tech star also was a three-time All-Pro.
Though he finished his career in Kansas City, he’ll always be identified as one of the best Saints players ever to don the black and gold.
Runner-up: Archie Manning
ROUND 2: Rickey Jackson
If you know your Saints’ draft history, you know this one is a no-brainer. The easiest choice the panel had to make, quite frankly.
Rickey Jackson – the City Champ – was New Orleans’ first-ever Pro Football Hall of Famer and played in the second-most games with the franchise (195). He was the only unanimous vote for best pick by the panel.
Jackson, the 51st selection in the 1981 draft, played 13 of his 15 seasons with the Saints. His 115 sacks are most in franchise history. His 13.5 sacks in 1992 are fourth-most ever in a single season for New Orleans. And his four-sack games against Atlanta in 1986 and Detroit in 1988 are tied for most by an individual in a game.
He also owns the franchise record for fumble recoveries with 26 and most in a season with seven in 1990.
Jackson earned Pro Bowl berths from 1983-86 and again in 1992 and ’93.
The Pahokee, Fla., native is still revered in New Orleans and every time he’s shown on the video board at any game around town, he gets a thunderous applause.
Runner-up: Dalton Hilliard
ROUND 3: Jimmy Graham
Proving you don’t have to be old to be considered one of the best, Jimmy Graham was the panel’s pick for best-ever third-round pick.
The 95th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Graham has become one of the game-changing tight ends in football. In just four seasons with New Orleans, he has earned two Pro Bowl berths and one All-Pro honor.
He has 41 touchdowns since entering the NFL. When calculated per touch, he has a scoring grab on average every seven times he catches the ball. His 3,863 receiving yards since 2010 are the eighth most of any player in that stretch and most of any tight end.
What makes the Graham pick more amazing is how little football experience he had prior to being selected by the Saints. How little was it? He had played only one year of college football after going to Miami to play basketball.
Runner-up: Pat Swilling
ROUND 4: Morten Andersen
In 1982, the Saints used the 86th overall pick to take a kid out Denmark by way of Michigan State. Morten Andersen repaid the Saints by spending 13 seasons in New Orleans, where he made 77.6 percent of his kicks, including 22 from beyond 50 yards.
Andersen’s 2,544 career points – split between New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City, Minnesota and the New York giants – are most-ever in the NFL. He’s the Saints’ franchise-leader in scoring (1,318 points), field goals attempted (389), field goals made (302) and games played (196).
He earned seven Pro Bowl berths – all but one with New Orleans – and was a three-time All-Pro. Additionally, he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-80s and All-90s teams.
While not in the big Hall of Fame, there are many who believe he has earned a spot. He already has been inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame, in 2009, and earned a spot in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame two years later.
Runner-up: Jahri Evans
ROUND 5: Carl Nicks
Carl Nicks had to wait until the 164th pick came up in 2008 before hearing his name called. And it was the Saints who were rewarded for their patience.
Whether it was character or something else, Nicks fell … and fell … and fell. Turns out he was a higher-round caliber player and New Orleans benefited.
When Jamar Nesbit was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in 2008, Nicks slid into the starting lineup at left guard. He didn’t relinquish the spot until he signed a lucrative free agent contract with Tampa Bay in 2012.
Nicks became one of the key players on New Orleans’ two best teams – the Super Bowl-winning 2009 group and the team that two seasons later, broke NFL records on offense.
While he’s no longer with New Orleans, the pick turned into a critical part of New Orleans’ turn around in 2009.
Runner-up: (*tie) Tyrone Hughes, Thomas Morstead
ROUND 6: Fred McAfee
Fred McAfee won’t go down as the Saints’ best running back ever, but he may just go down as one of the team’s most recognizable characters.
He was taken with the 154th pick of the 1991 draft out of Mississippi College and initially played for only three full seasons with New Orleans. Eventually, though, he returned to the franchise and finished his final seven seasons with the Saints.
It was in that time that he made his biggest impact, earning a 2002 Pro Bowl berth thanks mostly to a key role on special teams.
He’s still with the franchise as the director of player development, working with young players transitioning into the NFL.
Runner-up: Floyd Turner
ROUND 7: Marques Colston
The quiet receiver from Hofstra fell one point short of joining Rickey Jackson as a unanimous pick by the panel.
Only three players were taken after the Saints took Colston with the 252nd pick of the 2006 draft. Colston may be one of the best late-round picks in the entire NFL the past two decades.
He holds franchise records for receiving yards (8.337), yards from scrimmage (8,344), receiving and total touchdowns (63), receptions (607), most 1,000-yard receiving seasons (six) and highest receiving average (13.7).
He stands out in a draft that is one of the franchise’s best, if not best, ever. In 2006, coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis’ first together, the Saints took Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Rob Ninkovich and Zach Strief, among others.
Runner-up: Eric Martin
ROUND 8+: Danny Abramowicz
The only other player who could possibly take the mantle of best late-round pick for the Saints from Marques Colston is Danny Abramowicz, who was selected with the 420th pick in the 17th round in 1967.
All he did was catch 309 passes for 4,875 yards and 37 touchdowns for New Orleans in seven seasons. He’s still fifth on the all-time catch list in franchise history, fourth in receiving yards and seventh in touchdowns.
In the five years Abramowicz played in New Orleans, only four players in professional football had more receiving yards.
He was an All-Pro in 1969, the same season he led the NFL with 73 catches.
Runner-up: Jim Wilks