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New Orleans Saints didn't need first-round pick for rookie class to make impact

Check out the best action photos from the New Orleans Saints in December presented by Sony.
Check out the best action photos from the New Orleans Saints in December presented by Sony.

The New Orleans Saints didn't have a first-round pick in the last NFL Draft.

Doesn't look like they needed one, either.

What the Saints lacked in quantity, they appeared to ace in quality in the rookie class, which includes rookie free agents, who make the class all the more solid for New Orleans, 13-3 entering Sunday's Wild Card playoff game against Minnesota (10-6) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The short view is this: Center Erik McCoy (second round, No. 48 overall) took over as the starter in training camp and filled the void left by four-year starter (and Pro Bowler) Max Unger, who retired last offseason. McCoy started every game and played all but six of 1,064 offensive snaps in the regular season.

Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (fourth round, No. 105), started seven of 16 games and has been every bit of the multifaceted defender New Orleans was anticipating he'd be, with an interception, a forced fumble and recovery, eight passes defensed and 49 tackles, several of the drop-where-he-hit-them variety. Gardner-Johnson said he's comfortable in the box or in space, in run support and in coverage.

Undrafted receiver Deonte Harris will represent the NFC as its Pro Bowl returner: 338 yards and a touchdown on 36 punt returns, and 644 yards on 24 kickoff returns. He's a threat to score every time he fields a kick.

Undrafted defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, a valuable member of the defensive line rotation, has been active all 16 games with one start, and had a memorable interception, two sacks, four passes defensed and 18 tackles during the regular season.

And undrafted defensive end Carl Granderson, who was active the last four regular-season games as the Saints needed more from him – with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and defensive end Marcus Davenport going to injured reserve with injuries – had eight of his 11 tackles in the final three games, and recorded a sack earlier in the season.

And that doesn't account for possible future contributions by safety Saquan Hampton (sixth-round pick, No. 177) and linebacker Kaden Elliss (seventh-rounder, No. 244), who both are on injured reserve.

"I think (they've played) well and you just have to look at the contributions we're receiving from each of these guys," Coach Sean Payton said. "C.J. is on the field a ton now. When you are able to pick up a (Shy) Tuttle and a Deonte Harris, aside from your selections, those are significant. McCoy, obviously we did not have a (first-round pick). I think we hit on a handful of players."

Harris and Tuttle especially were much-needed hits. Harris gave the Saints the return threat they've lacked for several previous seasons. He had a record-breaking career as a college returner at Assumption, setting the NCAA all-division record for combined return touchdowns, with 14, and the Division II single-season touchdown return record, with eight in 2017.

"Coming in, I just wanted to be the best player I could be and help this team out any way possible," Harris said.

"I cherish every opportunity and every blessing that comes my way. So I just give all glory to God and my family for keeping me levelheaded."

Tuttle came to a team that was deep at his position and earned a spot on the 53-man roster.

"It's a winning coach here," Tuttle said. "I figured that If I can go in there and play for the Saints – this is one of the best organizations in the league – so if I can go and contribute to the Saints, there's not many other teams that I can't play for.

"I believed in myself. I felt like I could make a team and I'm blessed to be in this position with the Saints."

Payton said signing Tuttle was vital, because of the position he plays.

"It's hard to find interior linemen offensively and defensively, because there just aren't that many body types," Payton said.

Tuttle was a fit, and the rookie simply fell in line behind the veterans and followed their lead, like all the other members of his class.

"I think we just come in and do our job," Tuttle said. "Follow the way of the old heads – every position group has a bunch of guys to learn from in the room, so you just go under their wing and learn from them, basically."

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