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New Orleans Saints have uncovered gems in undrafted rookie classes

Returner Deonte Harris, defensive back J.T. Gray were All-Pros last season

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Deonte Harris

We've learned to not exhale, much less sleep, on the New Orleans Saints when the seventh round of the NFL Draft has concluded.

For the Saints, the behind-the-scenes, working-the-phones, post-draft hustle for players has been almost as intriguing as the bright-lights segment – and sometimes, even more impactful.

The undrafted rookie free agent pool has been deep for New Orleans, and has helped unearth gem after gem. Last year was the cherry-on-top example: Undrafted rookie Deonte Harris was the first-team All-Pro punt returner and the NFC's Pro Bowl returner, and second-year defensive back J.T. Gray (undrafted in 2018) was second-team All-Pro as the special teamer.

But, more, undrafted rookie defensive tackle Shy Tuttle (two sacks, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and one of the most memorable big-man interceptions in franchise history) was a key rotational player on the defensive line. And undrafted rookie defensive end Carl Granderson had moments (a sack, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits) in his eight games on the active roster.

Dip back further, to 2018, and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth provided key snaps on the line, and receiver Keith Kirkwood caught two touchdowns and averaged 16.1 yards on 13 catches. In '17, tight end Dan Arnold and offensive lineman Cameron Tom were undrafted rookies that stuck and, even deeper, tight end Josh Hill, undrafted in '13, has started 54 of 103 career games for the Saints in his seven seasons.

New Orleans knows what it's looking for, and has proven adept at giving that kind of player an opportunity to make its roster.

Bottom line: It amounts to "stolen" draft picks and strengthens a class, especially if the class is a bit thin on numbers (the Saints had five picks last year, including no first-rounder, and have five picks entering this draft, no second-rounder).

Harris arguably was the NFL's biggest steal last year.

"I felt like the ability was there for the player coming in," Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said of Harris. "Certainly had a rough start – he had some injury stuff he was battling in the spring and in training camp, and he missed a good portion of time. But to his credit, once he got back and was healthy, right from preseason Game 1, he showed flashes right away.

"He had shown flashes at practice and some drill stuff and on college tape, but once he got an opportunity those first two preseason games, I think that's really where he jumped out at us. He's really not the finished product, he's still learning on the go. But it's a little bit crazy the way it worked out."

It has worked out for the Saints in different ways. The team has shown a knack for spotting undrafted talent even when it's on another roster.

Special teams ace Justin Hardee Sr., a college-receiver-turned-NFL-defensive-back, was an undrafted rookie for Houston in 2017 who drew notice when the Saints and Texans scrimmaged that year during training camp.

Kicker Wil Lutz was undrafted by Baltimore in '16 and released on the final training camp cut, but received a glowing letter of recommendation from Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh. A week later, he was signed by the Saints after what Coach Sean Payton called the most impressive workout he'd ever seen for a kicker.

Quarterback Taysom Hill was in Green Bay's training camp in '17, was waived before the regular season (Sept. 2) and claimed by New Orleans the next day (Sept. 3). New Orleans had been scouting another player on the Packers' roster, but Hill kept jumping off the screen as a play-maker.

Lutz has rewarded New Orleans with some of the most accurate kicking in franchise history, and earned a Pro Bowl spot last season after making 32 of 36 field-goal attempts. He made a couple of walk-off game-winners (including a career-long 58-yarder against Houston in the regular-season opener) and accounted for all of New Orleans' points in a 12-10 victory over Dallas.

He set a franchise record by making 26 consecutive field goals in 2018, and currently holds the NFL record with 35 consecutive field goals made on the road.

"I think the thing that separates kickers who are in the league and who aren't are the guys that can handle those moments," Lutz said of his clutch kicks. "That's the mental side of the game, is who can get the job done when they're called upon. Those kicks this year, those are my favorite kicks of my career."

And Hill is positioned to be the Saints' quarterback of the future, after Drew Brees retires. He hasn't had much game action at the position, but has played multiple roles on offense (tight end, receiver) and on special teams.

"I think the role is pretty clear, and first and foremost, we still view him as a quarterback," Payton said on ESPN earlier this offseason. "And we spent a lot of time this offseason discussing our vision for him this season at quarterback, but then also at the F-position. And what I mean by that ... that slash, tight end, wide receiver, he's a tremendous blocker, he's physical.

"I don't think people realize how fast he is. He's probably one of the three or four fastest guys on the team. So, he'll play that F-position, he'll certainly be involved in the kicking game. It's one of the things he takes pride in and is very good at."

Much like the Saints can take pride in the ability to identify possible impact players as undrafted rookies.

They've been good at it.

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