Justin Jefferson’s success should leave Saints kicking themselves for a long time
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has built a reputation for being one of the more aggressive draft day traders in the NFL for good reason. He burned a future election only to annoy a former assistant in attracting a coveted prospect. His team has taken bold steps to attract players like Marcus Davenport and even this year it has moved up twice to bring in Zack Baun and Adam Trautman.
Why couldn't Payton move up two or three places to add Justin Jefferson?
The rookie Pro Bowler was very productive for the Minnesota Vikings, breaking the record Randy Moss had set for first year receptions (73 and up) as he also approached his reception yard (Jefferson has 1,182; Moss had 1,313 as a rookie) . . Jefferson played in a similar offense up the street at LSU, and he was a popular link to New Orleans in mock drafts after it looked like such a simple adaptation to their system. The Vikings picked Jefferson at number 22 on this year's draft, while the Saints picked Ruiz at number 24.
Given how badly the battered Saints who received the corps played late this season, it's easy to question their decision to call Michigan Center's Pat and Draft to Cesar Ruiz, who is right-wing guard at training camp has been converted and still has not won this starting job. Currently, he's only getting first-team reps because the veteran he couldn't dislodge, Nick Easton, has been retired by a concussion.
Maybe it will all look different in a few years. Jefferson could approach the humble expectations he had when he left college. Ruiz could return to its natural position in 2021 and receive the All-Pro termination for the next decade. Who should say what happens? Both players have a complete offseason job with opponents who have enough band to study and prepare.
But right now it seems like the Saints botched this. Even the most humble projections for Jefferson would have exceeded what their patchwork reception corps has achieved. They deserve a mulligan for Michael Thomas who deals with a full season injury, Emmanuel Sanders who caught COVID-19, and Drew Brees who is a month away. That doesn't change the fact that the Saints could have made it easy to move the draft board up to land a major upgrade in a position of need.
They did not lack capital drafts. New Orleans later swapped its picks for the third round in 2020 and 2021 because they so desperately needed Baun, a Wisconsin pass rusher they wanted to convert to a stand-up linebacker role and who only got 56 times the Having joined defense on the field per Pro Football Focus, more snapshots are recorded in coverage (10) than as pass rusher (7).
The Saints also swapped their fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh round picks to acquire Trautman, their backup tight-end that has drawn 13 goals in 13 games this year. He's on an interesting career path but at the end of the day the Saints exchanged lots of tips for two players who didn't help the team as much as Jefferson did.
Someone somewhere on the line messed up this review. Like other teams, they may have written off Jefferson as a recipient limited to the slot that thrived with a quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy. He has proven that he is much more than that.
And the Saints could pay for it on Friday when Jefferson's Vikings visit the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He'll be able to keep up with either Marshon Lattimore or Janoris Jenkins. Lattimore was largely hired to cover Adam Thielen in the Vikings' playoff win in New Orleans in January, with Jenkins taking Stefon Diggs out of the game. Perhaps the Saints do a different thing this time.
Even so, seeing Jefferson flourish for Minnesota when the Saints were so close to shooting him will always be disappointing. If it maintains its historic pace, you will no longer wonder, "What if?" for quite a long time.
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Updated Saints vs. Vikings: LG Andrus Peat (ankle) updated
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