NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The New Orleans Saints looked to restore depth to their edge pass rush after losing the team’s sack leader from last season to free agency, selecting Houston defensive end Payton Turner 28th overall in Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft.
The decision to take the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Turner comes after Saints 2020 sack leader Trey Hendrickson, who had a career-high 13 1/2 sacks last season, chose to leave New Orleans for Cincinnati.
Although Turner played in just five games for Houston last season, he had five sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for losses, along with a forced fumble. “There were a couple bumps in the road, but I think I showed a glimpse of what I can do,” Turner said after being drafted. Turner was sidelined with an upper calf strain in 2020 and tested positive for COVID-19 during the season.
In terms of snaps, Turner estimated that he really just played the equivalent of 3 1/2 games.
“Sample size came up,” Turner said of his pre-draft discussions with NFL teams that interviewed him. “But I was confident in everything that I had put on film, everything that I showed and went and confirmed that a pro day. So I was confident in my abilities.”
Saints coach Sean Payton described Turner as a “high-energy player” with prototypical physical attributes at his position. “We really had this player as someone you couldn’t help but notice,” Payton said. “There were too many things that we felt gave this guy a lot of chances to be successful in our league.”
Turner also played at defensive tackle earlier in his college career, which he said: “really helped me just being more physical on the edge when I did transition to the edge.”
Turner now joins a roster with two starting defensive ends in 10-year veteran Cameron Jordan and fourth-year pro-Marcus Davenport, a 2018 first-round pick whose fifth-year option was picked up by the Saints earlier on Thursday.
But he could see considerable playing time as a rookie nonetheless. Last season, the Saints often rotated in three or four defensive linemen throughout games, sometimes deploying a pass-rushing package with three ends on the field together. “He’ll play and earn those (snaps) this first year,” Payton predicted when asked how immediate he expected Turner’s contributions to be. “We’ll have a clear vision for his role.
“He’s got great size, great length. You see a powerful player. You see him play inside,” Payton added. “There were too many things that we felt perfect about.”
The more significant need for the Saints was arguably at cornerback. But New Orleans could not trade up before four of the top-rated cornerbacks in the draft had been selected by other clubs. “We feel like it’s our job to speak with people in front, just find out their appetite” for a trade, Payton said. “So, we definitely were on the phone with several teams in front of us. … More than half of them didn’t really have any interest.”