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Why Payton Turner at No. 28? Rookie has 'prototype' size Saints covet

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints raised some eyebrows by drafting Houston defensive end Payton Turner with the 28th pick in the NFL draft, since he was selected sooner than most projected.

But it should come as no surprise that New Orleans’ DE draft board might look a little different than others.

The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Turner is joining a long line of long defensive ends with the Saints, who have coveted his type of size and length throughout the regime of coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. And they have doubled down since assistant GM Jeff Ireland took over college scouting in 2015.

It’s a philosophy both Payton and Ireland gleaned from shared mentor Bill Parcells.

“Here’s the thing, you usually don’t see guys 6-foot-6, 270 with 35-inch arms who can bend like that. You just don’t,” ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “He fits the exact profile of what [defensive coordinator] Dennis Allen and the Saints want at the position. Look what they already have on the roster with Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Long, big, power 4-3 defensive ends.

“I thought he would be an early Day 2 pick. But going to New Orleans … when you look at the fit and what Dennis Allen does from a scheme perspective with his multiple fronts, you say, ‘OK, this makes a lot of sense.’”

The Saints drafted Jordan (6-4, 287) and Davenport (6-6, 265) in the first round in 2011 and 2018, respectively. Loomis also drafted DE Will Smith (6-3, 282) in Round 1 in 2004 before Payton arrived in 2006.

Even more notable is Turner’s arm length of 35 1/2 inches and wingspan of 84 1/8 inches, according to Houston’s pro day results. Those numbers both would have ranked top 10 among defensive ends from 2011-20 at the NFL combine, according to data from ESPN Stats & Info.

If you comb through the list of longest arms and wingspans among defensive linemen, you’ll also find Tanoh Kpassagnon (a former Kansas City Chiefs DE who was signed by the Saints in free agency this year), DE/DT Akiem Hicks (Saints third-round pick in 2012) and DT Al Woods (Saints fourth-round pick in 2010).

“Look, part of it's your scheme fit. And part of it is a little bit of my early days with [the New York Giants] and then with Bill in Dallas," Payton said. "The vision, especially in the early part of the draft, you’re hopefully drafting prototype player size, weight, speed. Clearly there are exceptions that become great players, and we've taken exceptions as well. But the length is important and the durability, stamina. There are times where there's a little bit more energy required of a player that's not as big.

“It’s hard to find those players. ... I think in our league, it matters.”

Run defense is an underrated strength for Turner, who called his length a “pretty supreme advantage” in being able to shed blockers in the run game.

Run defense is also an underrated part of the Saints’ “bigger is better” philosophy. They rank No. 1 in the NFL since 2018, allowing just 88.5 rushing yards per game.

Another size advantage: Turner, Jordan and Davenport have experience moving inside to tackle in passing-down packages.

Ireland told The Athletic that “prototype” was even more important in this year’s draft since teams had less information available on prospects because of the pandemic.

“He’s the longest defensive end, I think, in the last 10 years. And he plays with it,” Ireland said. “He plays the style of defensive end that we want to play. And that’s, take that tackle back into the quarterback. We’re not going to be behind the quarterback a lot. We’re not this old Dwight Freeney, bend-the-edge type guy. That’s not the way we play defense. We’re going to get our hands in the quarterback’s face. We’re going to take that tackle, we’re going to press him right back into the quarterback’s lap. And we’re going to play with speed and power. And then just when you think we only bring power, he’s got the athleticism to get around you, just like Marcus and just like Cam.”

Jordan, a six-time Pro Bowler, has panned out better than Davenport so far. Davenport has battled injuries and inconsistent production since the Saints paid a huge price to acquire him (trading away their 2019 first-round choice to move up from No. 27 to No. 14).

Nevertheless, Davenport was widely projected as a top draft talent. And Bowen said Turner reminded him of Davenport when he saw his size and athleticism on display at the Senior Bowl.

Of course there are question marks about Turner, who played at a lower level of competition and played five games last season (with five sacks) due to a calf strain and positive COVID test. Bowen said he’ll have to develop more pass-rushing countermoves, for one.

But Bowen said he expects Allen to scheme one-on-one opportunities for Turner through stunts and games. And he described Turner as an “ascending player” with “uncoachable traits.”

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Payton Turner's NFL draft profile

Check out highlights from Houston's dynamic edge rusher Payton Turner.

“When I turned on the tape, I was really surprised at how easy of a mover he was at that size, his feet off the ball and his ability to bend on the edge,” Bowen said. “And the other thing, he has really good change-of-direction ability for a big man. That’s gonna show up in the run game, his ability to play off contact. And when a ball bounces off the edge and he’s put in a position where he has to make a play in space, he can do that.

“There’s a great play on his college tape against BYU and Zach Wilson where he beats (first-team All-American left tackle Brady Christensen) inside and presses upfield. Now he’s one-on-one with Wilson on the edge. And he makes the play. He has those traits.”