But this year, the Saints can’t afford to miss out on a class that might be even more loaded with talent than those exceptional 2019 and 2020 groups.
“It’s the strongest position overall in this draft,” said ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who has three receivers going in the top 11 picks of his latest mock -- and a total of 14 in the first two rounds.
That would break the all-time record of 13, which was set last year.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly did a breakdown of why college football has been producing so many awesome receivers in recent years. And a total of 19 NFL teams have tried to take advantage by drafting at least one receiver in Rounds 1-3 over the past two years.
The Saints are counting on fourth-year pro Tre’Quan Smith to finally break out after they drafted him in the third round out of Central Florida in 2018. But even if Smith does finally deliver on the flashes of potential he has shown over the past three seasons, he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next year.
Beyond Thomas and Smith, the Saints have a group of young, undrafted receivers who have also shown potential in Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway, Juwan Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. But they are hardly proven commodities.
Thomas (510 career receptions), Smith (80) and newly signed tight end Nick Vannett (75) are the only receivers or tight ends on New Orleans’ roster with more than 26 career receptions.
That doesn’t mean the Saints need to reach for a receiver in Round 1. Cornerback, linebacker and defensive line are also top needs. And quarterback should obviously be on the radar after Drew Brees’ retirement.
But with so much talent available, the Saints should ideally land a receiver that they like with one of their four picks in the first three rounds (28th, 60th, 98th and 105th overall).
The good news is that the Saints don’t have to be picky when it comes to style. They could use a slot receiver, a downfield burner (especially if Jameis Winston and his big arm take over at QB) or another big physical presence like Thomas.
Unfortunately the Saints would have to move up nearly 20 spots to have a shot at this year’s big three superstars (LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle). The rival Atlanta Falcons made a similar leap for Julio Jones in 2011 that worked out pretty well, giving up a package of five draft picks -- including two first-rounders. But if the Saints are willing to pay that steep of a price, they should probably consider a quarterback instead of a receiver.
However, the Saints could potentially have a crack at the other top pass-catchers if they stay put at 28 -- including bigger targets such as LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. and Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman; or smaller, explosive players such as Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore and Florida’s Kadarius Toney.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projected Moore to the Saints in his most recent mock draft. And ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen paired the Saints with Moore in a recent post on the best team fits for this year’s rookie receivers because of his “traits and toughness as a slot target with the ability to produce on screens or backfield touches.”
“With Moore -- whom I see as an upgrade over Sanders -- the Saints add a playmaker who complements the skills sets of both (Thomas and Alvin Kamara),” Bowen wrote.
The Saints could potentially find the same type of fit with several smaller dynamic receivers in Round 2, including Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell, Western Michigan’s D'Wayne Eskridge and Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz.
Kiper paired the Saints with Rondale Moore in Round 2 of his mock, saying that Saints coach Sean Payton “will be able to get the most out of Moore, using him on jet sweeps and screens and getting him the ball in creative ways.”
Kiper also has North Carolina’s Dyami Brown, Clemson’s Amari Rodgers and Stanford’s Simi Fehoko going off the board in the first 64 picks in what he projects to be a history-making class. McShay had Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace in the second round of his mock.
And the talent pool hardly dries up after that. Scouts Inc. also has Michigan’s Nico Collins, South Carolina’s Shi Smith, South Dakota State’s Cade Johnson and Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt ranked among its top 105 overall draft prospects -- with seven more beyond them in the top 150.