Intrigue over whether or not the New Orleans Saints will seek to move up in the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night, in order to make a higher pick brushes aside the fact that the Saints also have managed to unearth several gems later in the draft.
New Orleans doesn't own a first-round pick entering the draft; its first pick currently is in the second round, No. 62 overall. But a handful of picks later in the draft – two fifth-rounders (168 and 177), a sixth (No. 202) and two sevenths (231 and 244) – and the rookie free agent class give the team confidence that even if it doesn't maneuver around, it will land players who can contribute.
"We've got pockets (of picks)," Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday. "We've got these clumps of players and then, of course, when the draft ends, (because) there's only seven rounds. There was a time historically when this draft went much deeper, 12 rounds. So there are a lot of good football players that aren't going to be selected when the draft ends on Saturday.
"And any time you can find a player after the draft, that can contribute in some way – and each year we've been able to do that – that might as well be a fifth-, a sixth- or a seventh-round pick. So I'm sure that'll be something we spend a lot of time on."
Since 2013, the Saints have picked up tight end Josh Hill, cornerback Ken Crawley, tight end Dan Arnold, offensive lineman Cameron Tom, receiver Keith Kirkwood and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth as free agent rookies.
Later-round draft picks since 2006 include guard Jahri Evans, offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod and defensive tackle David Onyemata (fourth round), guard Carl Nicks, punter Thomas Morstead, receiver Kenny Stills and defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (fifth), and offensive tackle Zach Strief, receiver Marques Colston and offensive lineman Will Clapp (seventh).
"When the topic comes up of guys having contributions early, you reference special teams and yet, fortunately, we've been able to find good players, not just in the early rounds but in the latter rounds," Payton said. "And hopefully we can do the same this weekend."
Payton said that though the Saints aren't scheduled to be on the clock until Friday night, they expect a good player to be on the board at No. 62.
"I think when you get 62 players out, a lot can happen," he said. "But we feel comfortable that there's going to be a good football player, hopefully someone we feel like can help us sooner than later."
He also echoed the sentiment expressed on Monday by General Manager Mickey Loomis, that the Saints will consider all possibilities – including trading up or back – in order to draft the right players.
"If you really went back, you look at '06 – in the second round, we backed up and drafted (safety) Roman Harper," he said. "In the fourth round, we were ready to make a pick and then we backed up and drafted Jahri Evans.
"So we're not averse to either, but a lot of it has to do specifically with a player that you might feel his value is dropping some, or a player maybe that you feel like you can get if you do back up. So I think we're open to both. The key is having a good vision for who you're drafting: How do you see them fitting in and how do you see them helping your roster."
GO WEST, YOUNG MEN: Payton confirmed speculation that the Saints would elongate their road trip for weeks 2 and 3 of the regular season, when they play consecutive games against the Rams (Sept. 15) and Seahawks (Sept. 22). The team will not return to New Orleans between the games, but Payton said that's part of playing a first-place schedule.
"There's not a lot you can control," he said. "The West Coast swing – occasionally (the league) will ask a question or two. We'll go play Week 2 (against) the Rams, we open up with Houston at home, a tough opponent. There's a lot of playoff teams on the schedule and that's part of a first-place schedule.
"But we'll probably play out West and stay out West, and then play the third game (against) Seattle and come back home and get ready for Sunday night (against Dallas on Sept. 29). It's nice that our fans will have a number of prime time games at home.
"I think more than anything, you look at where your away games are, what are the travel challenges. And then, after that, you really focus more on the front part of it."