METAIRIE, La. -- While all the public attention during the weekend was centered on the New Orleans Saints' draft picks, it was nothing compared to the absolute insanity that follows the selection of Mr. Irrelevant, the final drafted player.
|Pro Bowl safety Sammy Knight is an undrafted free agent who has worked out for the Saints.(AP)|
Forget that these youngsters have not been drafted. The staff surprisingly puts in as much effort over the next hour as they had in the previous 30.
The Saints had about 30 players targeted and as many as 10 members of the front office were on the phone at any given time trying to lure the disappointed hordes of the undrafted. They must try to sell these kids on opportunities rather than the dollars that their drafted counterparts will earn.
Rick Mueller's personnel department and Jim Haslett's coaching staff move at an unbelievably furious pace in corralling these youngsters. They go as far as calling former teammates, friends of players and college coaches looking for help in convincing them that New Orleans provides the best opportunity.
"Call (UNC coach) John Bunning and ask him to talk to his kid to let him know we're not just going to bring him in to use as a body for camp," Haslett told one of his coaches as they feverishly tried to sign North Carolina tight end Zachary Hilton.
Even new draft picks Johnathan Sullivan and John Stinchcomb were employed while at the complex as the team asked the duo to convince another Georgia Bulldog to join them with the Saints as a free agent.
"Wait until you see how crazy it gets now," said defensive coordinator Rick Venturi. "This is the craziest part of the day. It may seem really disorganized because there are so many people making so many calls but we are all working together here. We'll even work together on some of these kids."
Cellular phones were used and handed off as the Saints tried to double- and triple-hit players in order to entice them to blow off other teams.
"I just spoke to the agent for (TCU LB LeMarcus) McDonald, he's ready to come if we make the decision," said scout James Jefferson.
"Each of us has about 15 kids each who we will call and get a feel for," said scout Mark Sadowski, the most adept at signing these undrafted kids. "We all have a few guys who we want and yell them out to (GM) Mickey (Loomis), Jim and Rick and they'll tell us to go get them in."
"I just want you to understand, you are my number one guy," said another scout to a youngster who admits on the phone that he is shocked at being overlooked in the draft. "I believe you can play in this league, otherwise I wouldn't be calling you. If you come here, you have a chance to make it."
Sadowski then calls Hilton and it is obvious why he is respected in the room for his track record with these young men.
"You are in my area, I've seen you and I'm going to bat for you in here," he said to the 6-foot-7, 259-pound tight end. "I think you can be productive in the NFL, I really do. I know you'd come in here and work hard for us.
"Either way, I'm going to call you back after I get together with the other scouts. I respect you and who you are and would not just leave you hanging. I just want to be straight with you because you deserve that respect."
Special teams coach Al Everest takes names from Mueller, sits outside and calls, sells, haggles then comes back in for more action. Everest is nonstop during this period as most of the draft's kickers and punters are still available as are several special-teams standouts.
Why is so much work put into a guy who was not rated high enough by 32 teams to be drafted in the first place? The scouting business is hardly an exact science. Loomis, Mueller, Haslett and personnel men like Pat Mondock, Tim Heffelfinger, Mike Baugh, Grant Neill and Barrett Wiley and the rest of the crew are all looking for the next gem.
They are in search of a Priest Holmes, Rod Smith, Wayne Chrebet, Kurt Warner or London Fletcher, all undrafted rookie free agents. They work tirelessly to find a long-time solid lineman like James "Big Cat" Williams and Derrick Deese or eventual Pro Bowler stars like tight end Marcus Pollard, linebacker Shelton Quarles and tight end Chad Lewis. Even a living legend has been found via rookie free agency, as was the case with defensive tackle John Randle.
The Saints know first-hand the value of this post-draft frenzy. In 1997, then-GM Bill Kuharich signed two college free agents in Keith Mitchell and Sammy Knight. Both went on the make the Pro Bowl.
How could so many guys slip through the draft's cracks?
Some guys simply fit a scheme. Others wake up and grasp an understanding of the pro game after coming up short on the college level. Others continue to improve while their drafted counterparts have already peaked.
The search for these lucky unknowns thrusts the room into a frenzy.
As each youngster is taken by the Saints or another club, most agreeing to signing bonuses of a mere $1,000 to $10,000 (with the latter being a rarity), Mueller has them removed from the "back board" until there are but a few names remaining.
The biggest shock for the reporter in the draft room occurred when most of the names had been removed and the Saints were haggling with agents over the final remnants of talent available. With the phone calls dwindling, one of the scouts actually packed up his belongings and headed -- get this -- to go scout next year's class.
"I have to go to Middle Tennessee State tonight to work out some guys tomorrow for next year," said scout Andy Weidl. "Yeah, we don't get much of a rest. We start it up again immediately."
Just 11-plus months to go until they get to do this all over again.