Rick Cleveland

This is how the New Orleans Saints got out of their funk and into the playoffs

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) celebrates an inception against the Atlanta Falcons with teammates in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. Lattimore has been a big reason for the Saints’ bounce back season.
New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) celebrates an inception against the Atlanta Falcons with teammates in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. Lattimore has been a big reason for the Saints’ bounce back season. AP

The New Orleans Saints were in a funk.

For three straight seasons, they won seven games and lost nine. In the NFL, that classifies as a rut — a bad rut.

So how did they get out of the rut in this magical season that has seen them win 11 regular season games, the NFC South Division title and a first-round playoff game?

They drafted their way out of it, that’s how.

Usually it takes two or three years to really know how you did in a draft. Not this time. Little more than eight months after last April’s draft we can safely call 2017’s the best draft in the franchise history.

The best. Not even close.

OK, well maybe it’s sort of close. The 1981 draft was an exceptional one. The Saints got Rookie of the Year running back George Rogers in the first round, Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson in the second and both tight end Hoby Brenner and defensive tackle Frank Warren in the third. Now, that’s a draft.

But 36 years later, the Saints did even better — at least it looks that way from this vantage point.

The Saints took Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who should be the NFL defensive rookie of the year, with the No. 11 pick. He’s only the best corner the Saints have ever had. That’s all.

With the last pick of the first round, obtained from New England, the Saints took offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk out of Wisconsin. He has become a starter and very much a key to the Saints vastly improved running game.

With the 10th pick of the second round, the Saints took free safety Marcus Williams out of Utah. He has been terrific — third on the team in tackles with 73 and second only to Lattimore in pass interceptions with four. He is a major reason, along with Lattimore, for the Saints vast defensive improvement.

Now then, three highly productive rookie starters in one draft would be hailed as a bonanza draft any time for anybody, but the Saints got far, far more than that. In the third round, with the 67th pick, they took Alvin Kamara, a running back out of Tennessee. They stole the best offensive rookie in the league is essentially what they did. Kamara has been stupendously good — a high, first-round talent who has produced in the running game, the passing game and on special teams. Kamara contributed 1,554 yards rushing and receiving and a team-leading 14 touchdowns.

Seems remarkable now that draft analysts initially criticized the Kamara selection saying the Saints badly needed an edge rusher and already had Mark Ingram at the running back position. Sports Illustrated gave the pick a grade of C. Eight months later, it gets an A with a plus.

So does the entire draft. In future seasons, we may see that the Saints got even more. Linebacker Alex Anzalone, another third round pick out of Florida, was playing really well before a shoulder injury in the team’s fourth game sidelined him. He adds great speed and athleticism to the defense. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson, another third round pick out of Florida Atlantic, has produced in a back-up role with two sacks and a forced fumble. Al Quadin Muhammad, a sixth round choice out of Miami, was drafted as a project at defensive end and the Saints believe he eventually will produce.

Most draft critics believed the Saints had helped themselves with this draft, but nobody, including the Saints themselves, could have predicted just how productive it has been.

The one criticism all seemed to have was this: The Saints’ most glaring need was an elite pass rusher off the edge. They didn’t get it — but let’s face it, there just aren’t that many of those.

But then Cameron Jordan, a first round pick in 2011, raised his already productive game several notches and became a truly dominant force off the edge. This past Sunday, the Carolina Panthers couldn’t stop him with double- and triple teams.

The Saints got both Jordan and Ingram in the 2011 draft, but the rest of it was pretty much a bust. Rarely — or never, in the Saints case — has any draft been as deep and rich as 2017’s.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.