NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The Saints started their second straight NFL Draft by picking an offensive lineman, specifically a center, when they took Cesar Ruiz out of Michigan with the 24th overall selection. In 2019, Erick McCoy got the call after the Saints traded up to the 48th selection.
After the conclusion of the first round, Sean Payton spoke with reporters by video conference. The following is the full conversation, as transcribed by the New Orleans Saints:
Can you give us the background on the pick and the rationale?
“Yeah, look, one of the areas we wanted to do improve in this draft was an interior offensive lineman and those are hard players to find later in their draft. We had a real high grade on Cesar (Ruiz). He was a guy that I would say, we had a lot of information on. He was extremely, extremely productive. A tough player at Michigan, played with great balance. We feel like he's got guard flex and we also feel like (Erik) McCoy has that same type of flexibility. When we drafted the player, when we saw it, there was two players, three players that we were really looking at staying put and there was a couple of guys we talked about trading up to get. But we felt pretty strong about letting the draft come to us and we were fortunate to get one of the two guys that we had targeted and I just think it helps our offensive line. I think we talk all the time about building with the right type of players, but also with your defense and your offensive line. We always want to draft to certain must and needs, but certainly offensive line was one of those positions in particular inside. We have some flexibility and I think the obvious question would be, hey, he's a center, you had a center last year. Obviously we think one of them is going to be a guard because we weren't drafting someone that high to come in and be a backup.”
What would that mean for Larry Warford?
“Every one of these guys is going to come in and compete and so Larry’s going to have to compete and we feel like we will go into training camp and that's how you improve your team, but he (Ruiz) was one of the better interior linemen I've seen in a while and I think we're getting a player with great physical ability and we're also getting a player that has fantastic makeup. He's tough. He's a leader. He's just one of those players that you continue to watch, continue to watch and I don't care what tape you put on it. It all looked the same.”
Does anything with no offseason program before training camp change anything when you want these guys to compete at this position?
“It's a great question, look it happened in 2011. I would say throughout our evaluation process this year. We're always grading what we think their football intelligence is and then we're grading how we feel the interview went. But more specifically back to intelligence, we felt this was the season when we read players for someone to say, hey, we see them contributing his first year. You had to do that knowing they weren't going to get a rookie minicamp. They weren't going to get OTAs or they weren't going to get a veteran minicamp (to participate in). So you had to as a scout, as a coach, anyone who was evaluating the player had to really think about making that statement because of the situation, going into training camp. We’re always looking for smart guys that can pick up things quick. This is one of these players. (He) made all the calls on their offensive line. (He’s) really, really sharp and you feel it when you watch him play.”
Would you say that things that happened immediately in front of you in the draft, you said you had a few players, I guess you know, that you were sort of watching the things that happened sort of immediately in front of you, maybe change and pivot in a different way than maybe you were going to. How would you describe what happened in the three or four picks leading up to yours?
“Yeah, this draft unfolded exactly how we thought it would in front of us. Look, we paid attention to the defensive tackle from South Carolina. He fell a little bit and then was picked up by San Francisco. The corner Atlanta picked up, those were two players that began to fall below their grade and at that point though, when we came to our pick, I bet we've mocked this thing six or seven times, and I know the scouts did, but it fell exactly how we thought it would fall and we knew we were choosing a real good football player. We weren't sure, we thought we had a good chance that he'd be at 24 when we picked and look and there's still some players with first round grades that'll be heading into tomorrow's a second round.”
How did the process go tonight, with the virtual draft?
“It was smooth. Everyone's using this term virtual, (but) virtual means it didn't happen. So it happened. We didn't do anything virtually. We did it, technically, but no, I thought everything seemed to work out pretty well. There weren't as many trades I don't think and yet everything else was clear. This afternoon we had some thunderstorms and some rain and we can lose power here so that got us a little concerned, but everything flowed pretty well.”
How much did you get to interact with Cesar (Ruiz) whether that was on FaceTime or at the combine and through those interactions, what was the quality that maybe stood out for you the most?
“Well, we had opportunities, number one at the combine. It went smooth and the interaction though, obviously it was combine and then follow up phone calls. There's some people there (At Michigan) that we’re close with. I worked with Juan Castillo at the Philadelphia Eagles and I've known him a long time. Juan was one of the consultants there, if you put on the tape though, you kind of saw the makeup, every once in a while you see makeup in a player when he's playing and he was one of these guys.”
Where do you see yourselves focusing on day two of the draft where some of the needs that you guys need to address?
“That's a great question. I think these linebackers, what's left of them, I think will go pretty quick. There's still some receivers I'm sure that are going to get drafted. We will focus closely in the morning and really begin to, we've already kind of have a second cloud, but the problem is tonight we open the draft at 24, well technically tomorrow we start the draft, call it at 68. I mean there's going to be a whole second round and then into the third round, now that's not to say that we couldn't move forward and we'll look to do that if the right players there. I think we know we have a need position at linebacker and we have to fill that some way, shape or form. Now it may not be through the draft, but it would be nice if we could fill it through the draft and then we've done a good job in years past now in the last four or five years, (after) the first round’s over with, but this is where you get to define how your draft class is and whether it's the second round, the third round, the fourth round, our fifth or sixth. We feel like there's some good football players in this draft and part of it is letting it come to you and understanding the grade. And then the other part of it is identifying maybe someone that you have a clear vision for and going and getting them. And I think that we'll pay attention to that because we feel like right now there's some players on this board I know that when I look over here that we'd all love to have, but part of it's being patient. Tomorrow's rounds two and three there’ll be a little less time (limit to pick). I don't anticipate us being stressed, but again there'll be a little less time than tonight.”
Sean, you said you were, uh, you guys wanted to stay at 24. Tonight is part of that that maybe if you were going to use the trade capital, maybe getting into round two would be the place to use it?
“Well, we discussed that. We discussed backing up even. Heading into this draft, you kind of had these discussions and there were a couple of players that we said if they fall enough we'd have an interest to go get. But when you say that, I'm not talking about 24 to six or eight, really more 24 to 21, within range where you're not giving up too much draft capital and the same thing then takes place relative to (the topic of) are we comfortable going back four or five spots? And as the draft unfolded, I said this at the beginning, no one knows where the quarterbacks are (going) or how that's going to shape out. But we felt like this draft unfolded exactly how we saw it. Now we saw the Oklahoma receiver getting picked maybe a little earlier than he did, but by the time it got to the pick in front of us, two picks in front of us to our pick, that is pretty much every time we mocked this thing or went through the mocks. We kind of expected it to be right where it was that we were comfortable and we felt good about that.”
Did you talk to Cesar Ruiz about moving to guard on the phone?
“No, we just drafted them, told him he’s coming to the Saints to play off offensive line and then we’ll let it sort out. And then we warned them about you guys when you talk to them and that you guys would try to pin them down to guard or center (laughter). Then that way he could actually tell you guys the truth (laughter).”