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Our 2021 NFL draft countdown continues with a recap of the 2015 Saints draft class, which was the first year Jeff Ireland really got to work with his own scouting department after rebuilding the group. It was also the last year Rob Ryan worked as defensive coordinator for the Saints, though he split responsibilities with his eventual replacement Dennis Allen. After another historically-worst defensive effort, the pressure was on for Sean Payton to make big changes, but it took time for that to happen.

The context

New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan talks with defensive back Jairus Byrd, right, during minicamp at their NFL football training facility in Metairie, La., Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

New Orleans’ 2015 season continued to be frustrating for all involved. The defense didn’t improve while the offense kept the Saints in games they probably should have lost. They went into free agency with an emphasis on their defense, signing a trio of linebackers: James Laurinaitis, Nathan Stupar, and Craig Robertson. The Saints also took a shot on defensive tackle Nick Fairley while auditioning Coby Fleener as their Jimmy Graham replacement.

The picks

Jan 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer congratulates Buckeyes wide receiver Michael Thomas (3) following Thomas’ touchdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the second quarter of the 2015 Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

  • Round 1, Pick 12: DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville

  • Round 2, Pick 47: WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State

  • Round 2, Pick 61: S Vonn Bell, Ohio State

  • Round 4, Pick 120: DT David Onyemata, Manitoba

  • Round 7, Pick 237: RB Daniel Lasco, California

The grades

ESPN’s Mel Kiper looked better on this draft for New Orleans than their past results, rating the Saints with a B-minus: “I’m not sure there was a player more consistently placed with a team in mock drafts of Todd and mine than Sheldon Rankins to the Saints, and I think they made a good decision to add him. He can be a disruptive force on the interior as they continue a defensive rebuild. After that the Saints got a pair of Buckeyes, I just think the order could have been flipped in terms of value. Michael Thomas has a lot of potential and should start early in New Orleans, but I hate passing on defense there given what was available. That said, Vonn Bell at No. 61 is a steal on my board. Yep, he needs to be more physical, but the guy has instincts and ball skills from the safety position. David Onyemata is a developmental player coming from Canada, where New Orleans went before to draft Akiem Hicks. Daniel Lasco is a workout warrior who could surprise if he can stay healthy. Not a bad draft, with the emphasis mostly where it should be — on defense. An outside linebacker would have been nice, but you only have so many picks.” Chris Burke and Doug Farrar at Sports Illustrated were also fans of the Saints draft picks, rating them with a solid B: “The Saints needed all kinds of help on defense, and certainly got it on the line with the selection of Sheldon Rankins with the 12th overall pick. Rankins is a pass-rusher with great run strength, and has the talent to define a defensive line for the next half-decade. And third-round safety Vonn Bell from Ohio State has the play potential to replace free-agent bust Jairus Byrd. Moreover, the Saints got one of the best receivers in this class in Ohio State’s Michael Thomas; he’ll add to Sean Payton’s offense as a bigger target for Drew Brees. Manitoba (Canada) defensive tackle David Onyemata is a project, but an interesting athlete. And Cal running back Daniel Lasco could be a seventh-round steal if he can get past the injuries that affected his 2015 season. There’s no outside pass-rusher, but Rankins could cure a lot of ills on that front seven.”

The results

New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (93) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

Just two players are left in New Orleans from this draft class: Thomas and Onyemata. Rankins’ struggles with injuries limited his availability over the years (appearing in just 63 of 80 regular season games), while a scary neck injury on special teams cut Lasco’s career short, too. Bell didn’t win a starting job until his fourth year with the Saints and the team worked quickly to upgrade from him by signing Malcolm Jenkins in free agency last year. But Thomas has a real argument to be the best pick the Saints have made since Ireland began building their draft board. Unlike Onyemata, Alvin Kamara, or Ryan Ramczyk, the Saints didn’t have to trade extra assets to get him. And no one expected him to set as many NFL receiving records as he has since landing in New Orleans. He strengthens the draft class on his own, to say nothing of Onyemata as one of the league’s better interior linemen. And even if they are on other rosters, Rankins and Bell are starters in the NFL.

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