Since Jeff Ireland joined the New Orleans Saints in 2015 as the director of college scouting, the club has ranked among the most successful drafting teams in the NFL.
The Saints have selected at least two starting players in every draft Ireland has overseen, including the landmark 2017 draft, which produced seven starting players, three of which went on to earn Pro Bowl honors.
Of the 49 players Ireland selected in the eight drafts prior to this year, 27 eventually became starters (55%), seven earned Pro Bowl invitations and two made All-Pro.
Player procurement at the NFL level doesn’t get much better than that.
I visited with Ireland on Friday to gather his insight on the seven-player class the Saints selected last weekend. Here is our conversation:
One analyst I spoke to this week said he thought you all had one of the best classes in the NFL draft. How did you feel about the overall class?
"Look, there's a human element to evaluating. It's a very subjective process that we go through. If we're drafting a player, we get at least six evaluations on him. And if we all feel the same way about a player, then we put him in a position where we feel like we can get him. And I think that's what happened this year. We had some guys that we felt like we all liked and all felt the same way about him, had a clear vision for him. And this is kind of the way the draft fell for us. And so we hope we're right. If we're right, we hit it out of the park."
Let’s start off with your first-round pick, Bryan Bresee. What did you like about him?
“Well, first of all, you pay attention to a guy who’s 6-5, 300 (pounds) and runs sub-4.9 (40-yard dash). And he's just a really athletic big man that I felt like had really not developed quite as much as he probably should have at Clemson. And it's primarily because of injury. I mean there's really no other reason than the injury. This year was a difficult year for him. I wouldn't (wish) that upon my worst enemy what he had to go through this last year, and so we had to evaluate him a little bit differently. And we went back to even two years ago and last season and then even two seasons prior to last season (in the evaluation). And we really just kind of felt like, man, this guy has a really good chance if he had not sustained some of the injuries he had, the infections he had to go through, just some of the family stuff that he had to go through with his younger sister (Ella, who died of brain cancer at age 15). That can take a toll on someone. And so it was a difficult evaluation to really find out who he is. We spent some time with him at the (NFL scouting) combine and spent some time with him at Clemson, had a great visit with him, and then spent a lot of time with our doctors on where his health was and they felt like his knee's going to be better than ever this next coming season. His shoulders, one shoulder's fine, the other shoulder's strong. So look, we just feel really good about the athlete and his upside. Love the character of the kid, the work ethic, his competitive nature. And at times he was really, really productive. And then this year was difficult to evaluate, but we feel like the upside's there and we feel like in our defense he's going to be really good.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s more of a three-technique defensive tackle than the two free agents that were signed, Nathan Shepherd and Khalen Saunders, right? Does he compliment their skill sets?
“Certainly, yeah. Look, we would say that he could play really across the board, and that's how they played him at Clemson. He played a four technique, he played a five technique, he played three (technique), he played nose. And I think he probably best fits as a three technique, but that's going to be up to our coaches. Our coaches may play him at five or four or even the nose, and some sub-down stuff or into one technique. That's the beauty of Bryan Bresee is that he's got a ton of versatility. His athleticism can complement any position along the defensive line. He could play end if you wanted him to. He's got a really high skill set to be a sub-down defender, especially at his size. And we feel like that's important.”
Let's move on to Isaiah Foskey. He seems to fit exactly the description of what you all look for in a defensive end. Tall. Rangy. Productive. Would that be accurate?
“Well, the fact that he's over 6-5, and he's almost 275 pounds and he runs around a sub-4.64 or 4.65 40, yes. He's got really long arms. He's super smart. He's a team captain, and he's got production. He fits what we do and fits what we like. And I think he's going to be a really, really good player. I think his upside is going to be really good. I think he can rush the passer, he can play with his hands, he's really strong. He can play the run, he gets out of trouble really well, which is very important for defensive ends. He's got good instincts. He plays with a tremendous effort and a motor to chase out of the stack. So there's just a lot of things to like about Isaiah Foskey. No player is ever just immediately ready for the National Football League. He's as close to being ready as anybody because of just his character and his entire makeup and the way he's built, where he played, how he's been coached. I think he comes in and he gives us a lot of snaps this year."
He blocked like four kicks and forced a lot of fumbles. How heavily does that playmaking skill factor into your evaluation of him?
“You love to see a player play with his kind of effort and motor in all phases. Even when he gets blocked and the ball is out and he's got to run and chase ... he's causing the fumble 20 yards down field, that's the kind of player that we want. That's where plays are made. And on special teams, he's blocked four kicks. I mean, he's quick off the ball on the snap. And he'll go through you, around you, over you — it doesn't matter — to get to that ball. So just every time you turn on the tape, you absolutely see this motor and this competitive toughness about Isaiah that we loved."
How important is a player’s motor or effort to you, especially along the defensive line?
“I think it's a critical factor. It's a critical factor for the position — you got to have a motor. Sometimes the quickness off the ball and those things are all important, but if you don't play with this competitive want-to and desire to finish plays, you're not going to be great. I mean, you can be good, but you're not going to be great. I think the great ones all played with that kind of competitive fire.”
Moving on to third-round pick, running back Kendre Miller, this was a guy from a small high school in east Texas who was kind of overlooked in recruiting and only had one breakout season at TCU. How did he get on your radar?
“Well, we loved his size. It all goes back to height, weight and speed. Loved his running style. He’s a down-hill runner, runs with great pad level. He's got explosive breakaway speed in the open field. He's creative. He makes people miss. He can make two cuts in a real quick, really short area. He's got contact balance. He's 20 years old. He doesn't turn 21 until June (11). He's really young and just now coming into his own. And we just felt like, man, this is too good to be true. We felt like he was going to slip and fall to around where we could take him (in the third round). It's crazy, you always trust your own feeling, you trust what you see. We knew he wasn't being mocked very high and then we kept watching him and we kept watching him. I'm like, fellas, trust your eyes, you're seeing it right. And you're crazy, you never second-guess yourself. But when you draft a player and immediately you get 26 text messages from colleagues in the league, some of them saying, "You son of a gun" or "He was the next guy (on our board). He was our third-best running back." He was the guy no one was talking about. He was kind of, maybe, a hidden secret (to the public). We didn't feel like that. No, we've always liked him. He wasn't a late bloomer for us. This was a guy we were on pretty early and loved the tape, and I think he's got a huge upside. He's got to clean up his pass protection, but when he hits you, the defender goes backwards. So we feel like it's just a matter of coaching him up, get some technique. We feel like he can help us.”
Your next pick was offensive lineman Nick Saldiveri, another one of those big, smart, grinder guys with some position versatility to him. What was it about him that you liked?
“Nick got on my radar at the Senior Bowl. My area scout out there, Joey Vitt, loved him. Certainly, we have a communication system where if there's a guy I'm going to like, I'm going to know about him early and I just didn't get a chance to get my eyes on him until either right before the Senior Bowl or during the Senior Bowl. Saw how he was able to bend, and I interviewed him personally at the Senior Bowl, and on the day of the first practice I saw him put a ball in his hand, and I'm like, "So have you been practicing center at practice?" He goes, "No, that's the first one I ever put in my hand." I said, "Do you feel comfortable going one-on-one at the Senior Bowl versus the top seniors in college football? And it's the first time you've done it." And he goes, "Yeah, why not?" I love the competitive spirit that he has, like: Hey man, what do I have to be worried about? He had great confidence about him. And he's smart. He's tough. He's super competitive, extremely versatile. He's got flexibility, in terms of just his body flexibility and flexibility in terms of the positions that he was able to play. He can play guard, center and tackle. We like having those kind of guys that have big upsides. Don't let Old Dominion fool you. He comes from a good program, well-developed. So we're excited to have Nick and excited to see what he can do this first year.”
Let’s talk about quarterback Jake Haener, who, at 6 foot, doesn’t exactly fit the prototype for the position. What was it you all saw in him, because I assume that normally you'd want a guy that's a little bigger than him at the position?
“Well, it’s certainly something we had to get over each time we watch the player, because, when you bring up a name, it's the first thing we see in our computer is ‘6 foot,’ and he's under prototype. And that ‘6 foot’ is going to be in a different color (on the grade card) than a prototype player. So you're going to look at him differently when you watch him play, because you're going to look and see how he creates windows for himself. And man, you wouldn't think he was 6-foot tall when you watch him. He's got great processing ability. He's got great vision. He's got a quick stroke. He's extremely smart. He's a sixth-year senior, so he's really mature for being a college senior. He's competed in two different programs, he's competed at Washington, competed at Fresno State. And I was just really impressed with the person, how he plays. He's had several fourth-quarter comebacks. He does kind of remind you or there's some similarities to No. 9 (Drew Brees). He's undersized, the way he creates windows and processing speed, quick release, the accuracy. I mean there's only going to be one of those guys forever. You can't really compare him, and I'm always careful to use the comparison because he doesn't compare to Drew, he's the only one. But there are some similarities that make you feel like, OK, maybe he can play similarly to that person. And you thought, OK, well you got another short quarterback in the league, you got Bryce Young. He just got picked first in the draft. What if Jake's in that offense (at Alabama)? I just think, hypothetically, Jake would have success if he's at Alabama. So we tossed a lot of these things around, like the idea of having a young developmental quarterback learn a new system with Derek (Carr) and Jameis (Winston). So that's just a smart business move, in our opinion. We felt like that was a smart move to get a young player in there to develop. We just want to see him develop in a system where we feel like it's going to be successful, learn from two guys that have been doing this and battled as starters in this league. We feel like that's smart business.”
Your sixth-round pick, defensive back Jordan Howden, is another guy that seems to fit what you look for at the safety position in the league.
“He was a guy that had tremendous production. He didn't have just this outrageous number of interceptions, but he had a really high number of batted balls, PBUs (pass break-ups) and deflected passes — just kind of those ball-hawking plays — throughout his career. And I loved his height, weight, speed. He's a great kid. All the coaches there really liked him. He's athletic enough to play any of the positions (in the secondary) and tough enough and versatile enough to play any of those positions back there, strong or free (safety). And I can see him even kind of line up as a big nickel or nickel or dime. He can certainly do some of those things as well. Height, weight, speed, developmental upside. He had 10 or 12 tackles on special teams. I think he had 500 snaps in his career on special teams, even being a starter. You saw effort in all phases of the game. The passion and desire to go help your football team win was apparent when you watched him on tape.”
On to your final pick, receiver A.T. Perry. I was surprised he was still on the board in the sixth round. What’s your scouting report on him?
“Like a lot of the rest of the guys, we liked his height, weight, speed, and that kind of jumps off the tape when you watch him. He is 6-3 and he's got these 33- to 34-inch-long arms, so he plays above the rim. He's got tremendous hands. He's got to clean up his consistency, catching the ball. But he does not have a catching problem. He just had a few concentration drops. He's a really good route runner, played in an offense that's sometimes hard to evaluate. He doesn't run the whole route tree, but at his pro day he ran a lot of routes that you didn't see in the game film that kind of jumped out at you. I’ve heard some people say there might have been a character problem (with him). I wouldn't say he had a character problem. I didn't feel like there was anything off the field with A.T. There just may be some young and immature time in his career where he wasn't maybe as punctual and wasn't working as hard as he probably should early in his career. And that may have addressed why he was there late in the draft because his ability, in our opinion, was higher than where he was taken (in the sixth round). He certainly needs some technique work. But he can play inside, and he can play outside. He's got a really high skillset. Excited to see what he's able to do and how quickly he can develop.”
Finally, your undrafted class. I know how much time and effort you all put into that process. What can you tell us about that group of players?
Ireland: “It's chaos in that arena. You have to hit it hard and aggressively go after certain guys that are kind of still sitting there at a grade that you feel like they can come in and at least be practice squad guys. And we went after several guys and got a lot of them. We’re excited. Those guys have got a seat at the table. Now they got to get to work and earn their job and earn a job either on special teams. Or if you're a (lineman), you got to learn fast and compete hard. First impressions matter.”