A couple years ago, in a Thanksgiving night win against the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints produced an odd bit of trivia.
Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees fired four touchdown passes in that game, which wasn’t necessarily special — it was one of 37 such games in his career. It was the guys who caught the touchdowns that was really interesting.
Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood, Dan Arnold, and Tommylee Lewis. All four of them began their NFL careers as undrafted free agents, and three of them initially signed with the Saints right after their respective drafts.
The New Orleans Saints hit on several needs in the NFL draft, but the team still has one major hole left to fill, and they’re embarking on an …
That none of them have gone on to have especially remarkable NFL careers is besides the point. That night in the Superdome illustrated a truth about the Saints and their college scouting department: Any evaluation of a draft class on a year-by-year basis should not be limited to the players they selected in rounds 1-7.
Sunday, the Saints announced the addition of 17 undrafted free agents. The majority of them will not make the club out of training camp, and several may not make it past rookie minicamp. But there’s a good chance that a couple not only make the 2022 roster, but play an important role.
“I think this is one area that our scouts are particularly adept at,” said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. “They understand how does this guy fit our team? Our scouts do a good job of having a vision for some of these players. Maybe we’ve only had one or two looks at them, and yet they understand our team.
“Our coaches do a great job of communicating with our scouts what they’re looking for, and our scouts have a good eye for those players who fit what our coaches want.”
Just in the last couple years, the Saints found a pair of All-Pro special teamers (Deonte Harty, JT Gray), a promising youngster who led the team in receiving in 2021 (Marquez Callaway), a starting defensive tackle (Shy Tuttle) and several others who’ve contributed in a meaningful way (Blake Gillikin, Calvin Throckmorton, Carl Granderson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Juwan Johnson) through undrafted free agency.
Saints coach Dennis Allen said it simply comes down to understanding what the team is looking for in a player and then projecting how that player fits within the Saints’ framework.
“Whether it be from a mental standpoint, from an athletic skill set standpoint, from a football intelligence standpoint; I think just having a clear vision for how we’ll use a guy gives the guy a chance to come in and have success,” Allen said.
The New Orleans Saints have continued to build the roster after the conclusion of the NFL draft, and they have agreed to terms with 17 undraft…
That process is in some ways similar to the draft — the Saints, for instance, drafted team captains with four of their five picks in this year’s draft, and would value that trait in a similar way with undrafted players.
But the nature of sifting through players that had been passed over in the draft also means the Saints view them through a bit of a different lens.
“Sometimes you’re looking for, maybe not prototype, but some unique or elite trait,” Loomis said. “Or some unique or elite production.”
Take Harty as an example. He played at a Division II school (Assumption College) and his 5-foot-6 frame was far from ideal. He did not fit the Saints’ usual prototypes when it comes to players they select in the draft.
But he had unique traits that made him worth a longer look. He was arguably the greatest return man in college football history, racking up 14 return touchdowns in four years (in addition to 28 receiving touchdowns).
Harty made the team out of training camp then provided those skills translated to the professional level, making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams as a rookie after leading the NFL in punt return yardage. In the years since, he’s added to his repertoire of him, becoming a valuable deep threat as a receiver.
So who will it be this year?
Maybe someone like Baylor running back Abram Smith, who switched from linebacker to running back before the 2021 season and led the Big 12 with 1,601 rushing yards. Or maybe someone like Weber State receiver Rashid Shaheed, who like Harty excelled as a return man, with seven career kick return touchdowns.
That much won’t become clear until the Saints get to see them suit up. But recent history suggests somewhere in that 17-player class of undrafted free agents, the Saints found a gem.
A player-by-player look at Chris Olave, Trevor Penning, Alontae Taylor, D’Marco Jackson and Jordan Jackson.