Former Mississippi wide receiver Elijah Moore runs upfield after catching a pass during a drill at the school's pro day football workout for NFL scouts in Oxford, Miss., Thursday, March 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

So when it finally came time for the New Orleans Saints to pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft Thursday night, many folks, including this one, thought they might opt for Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore, the best college player in Mississippi this past season.

ESPN’s draft expert Mel Kiper was calling Moore the most under-valued player in the entire draft, rating him as the 16th best talent. New Orleans, picking at No. 28, has long needed another wide receiver to take some of the pressure off Michael Thomas. Moore has many attributes including speed and ability to make people miss, but what I like most about him is the same attribute I love about Thomas: He catches the ball. He would have given Sean Payton one more badly needed weapon in his offensive arsenal: Flank Thomas wide, put Moore in the slot, and then swing running back Alvin Kamara out to that side. Good luck, defense.

Rick Cleveland

Still, there was no way I was surprised when Roger Goodell did not call Moore’s name. That’s because the Saints did what they usually do when it comes to their first pick of the draft. That is, they went for a lineman — in this case Houston defensive end Payton Turner, a guy few if any had going in the first round. 

And that makes seven straight drafts the Saints have used their first pick for an offensive or defensive lineman. You can knock that policy all you want, but you also must realize that since 2016 only two NFL teams, the Chiefs and the Patriots, have achieved more victories than the Saints. Clearly, the Saints have been doing a lot of things right and drafting is certainly one. One thing never changes about football: Most games are won in the trenches.

The Saints have made some amazingly good first choices during those years, such as All-Pro tackle Ryan Ramczyk in 2017. They also have missed on occasion, such as when they traded up in the 2018 draft to the No. 14 position to choose UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport. In three seasons, playing in 37 games, Davenport has produced 12 sacks, including just 1.5 last season. Those aren’t first-round numbers. Put it this way: Had Davenport been what the Saints thought he would be, they would not have been drafting another defensive end in the first round three years later. And while it’s true that it’s too early to call Davenport a total bust, he seems to be trending in that direction. 

So, let’s take a look at Turner, the long, limbed, 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end the Saints chose Thursday night. He is the proverbial late bloomer, a former two-star recruit from the Houston area. That’s one reason why he might not have been high on a lot of draft charts. Another reason is this: He played in only five games in 2020 because of COVID-19 and injuries.

Turner, Houston’s team captain, did make those five games count. Turner recorded 25 tackles, five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in those five games. One of those was against Tulane, where new Southern Miss coach Will Hall was the offensive coordinator for the past two seasons.

Asked about Turner, Hall replied: “He’s a really dynamic pass rusher who improved dramatically from 2019 to 2020. He’s got tons of upside, could be a legit edge guy in the NFL. He’s an Alabama or Georgia type talent. Long and physical.” 

Against Tulane, Turner finished with 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and seven tackles overall.

Said Hall, “He dominated us. We could not block him.”

The Saints would have loved to have used the pick for a badly needed cornerback, but the four best available all went before New Orleans had a pick. The Saints reportedly tried to trade up to pick South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, son of former Saint Joe Horn, but the price was just too high.

Time will tell if the choice of Turner, which many consider a reach, pays off. Time also will tell about whether all the teams that passed on Moore made a huge mistake.

I suspect it might turn out like the 2019 draft when every team picking in the first round passed on Rebels A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf in the first round. Remember? Both lasted well into the second round before the Titans chose Brown and the Seahawks took Metcalf. In two seasons, Brown has scored 21 touchdowns, Metcalf 17. Both have played in a Pro Bowl. 

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.