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Saints used patience, hustle to land Rookie of the Year winners

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METAIRIE, La. -- Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was one of the easiest draft picks the New Orleans Saints ever made -- the No. 2 or 3 player on their board who fell into their laps with the No. 11 pick.

Running back Alvin Kamara took a lot more hustle and effort. The Saints spent about two hours trying to trade up and get him before they finally succeeded at pick No. 67.

“There were four of us calling,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis recalled last week. “We tried most of the teams between, call it 45 and 67, looking for a deal so we could trade to get him.”

Both are examples of how preparation and patience led to one of the NFL’s best draft classes in recent memory. And on Saturday night, it led to New Orleans becoming the first team in 50 years to sweep the Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards.

The only other team to do it was the Detroit Lions with cornerback Lem Barney and running back Mel Farr in 1967. (The NFL didn’t have separate offensive and defensive awards yet when the Chicago Bears drafted both Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965.)

While Lattimore was the easy winner with 45 votes for the official Associated Press defensive honor, Kamara was in a somewhat tight race with Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Kamara received 28 votes with Hunt, a fellow third-rounder, receiving 21.

In retrospect, the Saints were crazy to wait as long as they did to draft Kamara. But obviously the entire NFL was sleeping on just how dynamic the runner/receiver from Tennessee could be. Even Saints coach Sean Payton, who became enamored with Kamara during a pre-draft visit to Tennessee's campus, admitted the Saints didn’t know how effective he would be as a between-the-tackles runner.

The Saints considered Kamara with their second-round pick at No. 42 overall. But they had a first-round grade on Utah safety Marcus Williams, and improving the defense was a huge priority. That pick wasn’t too shabby, either, as Williams became a full-time starter with five interceptions (including the playoffs) for a vastly improved secondary.

But a few minutes after the Saints turned in that Williams pick, Loomis said, they started working to get Kamara. And they eventually found a willing trade partner in the San Francisco 49ers. The cost: the Saints’ 2018 second-round pick and their 2017 seventh-round pick.

Now, remember that when you’re grading the Saints’ 2018 draft haul. Their second-round pick was actually Kamara. As Loomis likes to say, “We just got him in the building a year early.”

Kamara was arguably New Orleans’ offensive MVP with 728 rushing yards, 826 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns. His 7.7 yards per touch were the most in NFL history by any player with at least 200 touches, and he led the league with 6.1 yards per rush. He joined Sayers as the only two rookies ever with at least five rushing TDs, five receiving TDs and one kickoff return TD in a season.

“He’s been fantastic. That’s an understatement, right?” Loomis said. “We’re glad to have him. He’s a great kid; he’s a great teammate. I think our coaches have done a great job of utilizing his strengths, and he’s taken advantage of that.”

The Lattimore choice, meanwhile, became even more of a no-brainer for the Saints after the Chiefs traded up to draft quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the No. 10 pick.

By all accounts, the Saints probably would have taken Lattimore ahead of Mahomes if both were available, since Lattimore was among the top three players on their board and defense was such a huge priority. Payton even said on draft night that the Saints talked to a couple of teams about moving up to get Lattimore as he started to slip as a surprising run on wide receivers shook up the top 10.

But there would have at least been a conversation in the room about Lattimore vs. Mahomes if both were available, since the quarterback position is such a game-changer.

Lattimore slipped in part because of his history with hamstring injuries early in his Ohio State career. But fortunately, the Saints’ college scouting department, led by assistant general manager Jeff Ireland, had done enough due diligence on him -- even though they didn't expect to have a chance at drafting him.

Lattimore emerged as a No. 1 cornerback who routinely shadowed the opponents’ top receivers for one of the NFL’s most improved units. He started 13 games in the regular season, with five interceptions and 18 passes defended.

The Saints were also thrilled to land offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk with the No. 32 pick -- another case in which they might have benefited because he was coming off of hip surgery. Again, defense was a huge priority for the Saints heading into last year’s draft, but the grade on the Wisconsin lineman was too high to ignore.

And good thing, too, as they wound up needing Ramczyk to play every snap because of injuries to left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Zach Strief.

Loomis also stressed that the Saints were pleased with the rest of their draft (linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive end Trey Hendrickson in the third round, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad in the sixth). It was a huge haul for Loomis, Payton, Ireland and the rest of a college scouting department that had been revamped in recent years.

But Loomis said, “We’re not out here beating our chest or anything like that.”

“I don’t think anybody’s ready to put these guys in the Hall of Fame yet, but they had a great first year,” Loomis said. “I think the class from the year before did a nice job, too -- that didn’t get talked about enough. We’ve had some good contributions from the last two draft classes. And look, we need to continue to do that, and they need to continue to improve and grow.

“We’re excited about it. The coaches did a great job; the players did a great job. And yet, that’s not the end of it.”