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Saints Adept at Mining Late Round and Free Agent Gems

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    <span style="">The Saints have struck gold in recent seasons in the NFL Draft with late-round finds such as G Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston and G Carl Nicks. While the opening-day selections always grab the headlines, club officials put the emphasis on the total effort, with the second-day picks holding equal importance. Striking gold requires considering every draft choice priceless.  

"Acquiring players is a valuable commodity for us," said Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis. "At the end of the day, we don't care how a player gets here, we're just interested in what they do once they get here."

It takes a tireless approach in preparation by the club's front office, coaches and contingent of scouts, who have been planning for this weekend's draft in closed door meetings for the last few weeks at the team's training facility. Non-traditional football schools, such as Bloomsburg (Pa.) University, where the Saints found Evans, and Hofstra University, where the club discovered Colston, are not below the radar.

"When you hit on guys like Colston and Evans, as well as some others, I think that encourages your scouting staff to look under more rocks, so to speak," said Loomis. "Our guys have done a great job of doing that the last few years and I think they're excited. We have a few candidates in that category from places that don't ordinarily produce a lot of NFL players. We'll see how that shakes out and if we're able to acquire one or more of those guys."

In 2006, the Saints took an uncommon path in finding those two key contributors on the second day of the NFL Draft, selecting Evans in the fourth round and Colston in the seventh. A left tackle at tiny Bloomsburg, Evans became the immediate starter at right guard, was a unanimous All-Rookie selection and has opened all 48 games of his career since.

New Orleans selected Colston, with the 252nd overall pick. After a solid career at Hofstra, the lanky target became the most productive rookie wideout in club record books, and his 168 catches from 2006-07 are the most in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons. Colston has posted 24 touchdowns and 3,000 receiving yards since joining the Saints.

In 2006, New Orleans also chose T Zach Strief in the seventh round with the 210th overall selection. Strief has played in 41 games since his arrival and has distinguished himself in the games he has started.

Nicks has also proven to be a savvy late-round addition. Chosen 164th overall in 2008 out of Nebraska, the massive fifth-round selection went on to start 13 games last season and earn All-Rookie recognition from several publications.

In the 2007 draft, the club selected reserve T Jermon Bushrod in the fourth round from Towson University in Maryland – another school which doesn't rank among the college football powerhouses. In the third round – which was still a first-day selection in 2007 – the Saints nabbed Usama Young from Kent State. Young, who has a pair of interceptions in his career, is expected to battle for a starting spot this season after being a special teams standout over the last two years.

The scouts have been on the road throughout the year, and their research will also lay the foundation for signing the undrafted free agents in the hectic days following the NFL Draft. It's almost like recruiting, where scouts and coaching staffs from every team compete to fill out their rosters with the top undrafted college players they've seen over the previous season.

This is another area where New Orleans has had success in recent seasons. The club signed RB Pierre Thomas in 2007, who has rushed for 877 yards the last two seasons, including a team-high 625 last year. Thomas had a combined total of 1,702 yards in 2008 and led the Saints with a career-best 12 touchdowns.

In 2008, the Saints signed LB Robert Meachem/Jo-Lonn Dunbar.aspx">Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a key performer on special teams who had 16 stops as a rookie and also started two games on defense in place of an injured Scott Fujita.

"Throughout the history of the league there have been guys that have been late-round picks that have been successful and there's a large number of guys that have been successful that weren't drafted," said Loomis. "You're always paying attention to the talent pool. It gets highlighted when someone like Marques or Jahri has some success – or some of these other teams that have late picks that have become starters early in their careers – but we've always had an emphasis on these second-day picks."

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