Analysis: Hitting needs early, Saints find projects in later rounds

Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks (7) runs past Hawaii running back Steven Lakalaka (4) with a punt return in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes) Show caption
Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks (7) runs past Hawaii running back Steven Lakalaka (4) with a punt return in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

When Saints coach Sean Payton emerged from the draft room Saturday to discuss the players his organization had chosen in the previous three days, he told reporters the team had clear visions for all six new members, some of which would be realized “more rapidly than others.”

It’s realistic to expect the one for wide receiver and first-round selection Brandin Cooks to crystallize almost immediately. There’s a viable chance those who track the Saints in 2014 will get a good idea of the one for Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the tall, long cornerback from Nebraska taken in Round 2.

For the remaining four, though, it’s most likely those visions will take longer to come into focus — even if things go to plan.

There’s no question the Saints fully trust Cooks can be plugged into an offense that was No. 4 in yards and No. 2 through the air last year. They otherwise wouldn’t have traded their No. 27 pick as well as their third-round selection to move up to the 20th spot and grab Cooks, a semifinalist and then winner of the trophy given to the best receiver in college football in 2012 and 2013.

“A third-round pick is not inexpensive,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said. “Anything more than that would’ve been a difficult pill to swallow.”

But even discounting the 3,221 yards and 23 touchdowns he had receiving and rushing in his final two seasons at Oregon State, Cooks’ blistering time of 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash offers him up as the heir apparent to a significant number of the touches that running back, pass-catcher and kick returner Darren Sproles left behind when he was traded to Philadelphia.

“I always say this: This is the time when everyone has gotten their guy,” Payton said. “We’re excited about Brandin.”

Meanwhile, as coaches like to say, Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has size that can’t be taught at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds. That will be welcome to a secondary that was No. 2 against the pass in 2013 but did not have a member with a listed height over 6-1 or heavier than 214 pounds.

It also will be welcome to a secondary now tasked with facing Atlanta’s 6-3 Julio Jones; Tampa Bay’s 6-5 trio of Mike Evans (first-round rookie receiver), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (second-round rookie tight end) and veteran wideout Vincent Jackson; and Carolina’s 6-5, first-round rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin twice a year in the NFC South.

Aside from being big, Jean-Baptiste has another quality that secondaries these days love: He played receiver before switching to cornerback. But while he’ll compete for a spot opposite entrenched cornerback Keenan Lewis, even he admitted the audition will be crowded with future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, Corey White and Patrick Robinson.

As for the rest of the Saints’ draft haul, one can never write off any prospects brought in by the Payton regime, whose starting right tackle (Zach Strief) as well as the most-accomplished wide receiver in club history (Marques Colston) are both seventh-round picks preparing for a ninth season in New Orleans.

But until they prove otherwise, linebacker Khairi Fortt (fourth round, California), safety Vinnie Sunseri (fifth, Alabama), linebacker Ronald Powell (fifth, Florida) and right tackle Tavon Rooks (sixth, Kansas State) are there to provide depth at areas that weren’t in need of someone to make an immediate impact.

Like the rest of the defensive players selected Saturday, the 6-2, 240-pound Fortt; the 6-3, 237-pound Powell; and the 6-0, 210-pound Sunseri will vie to make a mark on special teams after dealing with knee problems in college. They’ll try to crack position groups that are packed with key components carrying over from ’13.

At linebacker, there are starters Junior Galette, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson (linebackers). At safety, there are 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, marquee free-agent acquisition Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush.

But under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints will use three-safety sets regularly. So there’s logic to bringing in the 6-foot, 210-pound Sunseri to compete for a rotational spot after he helped Alabama win two BCS titles and the only other safety on the roster was Canadian Football League import Marcus Ball.

At linebacker, only Hawthorne and Lofton are signed beyond the 2016 season, so adding there could widen options as contracts begin expiring in the coming years.

The 6-5, 280-pound Rooks — twice an All-Big 12 honorable mention — faces long odds to mount a challenge for Strief at right tackle. Yet Strief spent five seasons as a backup before being made a starter.

In all likelihood, that’s the vision for Rooks, who — as was true of his other third-day colleagues — didn’t constitute much of a risk at that price.