April 21, 2002

Saints had a tremendous weekend in 2002 NFL Draft

It began with a tough choice, between a top wide receiver and a top cornerback.

The Saints couldn't have predicted the unlikely free fall of Miami CB Philip Buchanon. But between concerns over his Miami attitude and 5'10 height, Buchanon slipped past the teams in obvious need of a cornerback all the way to 13.

Tennessee WR Donte Stallworth could have gone as high as #5, but when teams consistently chose beefy linemen over skill position players, Stallworth fell too.

When both were on the board, the Saints had a tough choice, and made the choice to take Stallworth. They would have been "right" either way.

But that selection set up the rest of the draft. And surprisingly, the players just kept falling.

DE Charles Grant, who the Saints would have considered at 13 had Stallworth and Buchanon not been there, fell past the Seahawks who then traded down, past the Raiders twice, past the Ravens. Grant was there are 25, and the Saints had their man. They passed on two more highly rated cornerbacks, Lito Sheppard of Florida and Mike Rumph of Miami.

Grant is more raw but faster than Joe Johnson when he came out of school early. When Johnson came out of Louisville early and the Saints drafted him in the first round, there were the same questions: Will Grant grow more consistent as a pro? Will Grant develop into a full-time starter at defensive end? Does Grant have the necessary maturity to make a success transition to the pros?

The Saints missed out on another player they needed and wanted, LB Napoleon Harris. It was clear that the Saints would either have to reach for Harris at 13 or trade up from 25 to get him. Harris could have provided an immediate starter at outside linebacker across from Sedrick Hodge, allowing veteran Darrin Smith to serve as a backup. Harris went at 23 to the Raiders.

The Saints had addressed two of their top needs with two picks of good value. Offensive line, outside linebacker, and defensive back are still needs.

In the second round, C/G LeCharles Bentley of Ohio State fell into their laps. There's no question that the Saints were interested in Bentley or another interior offensive lineman who could play both guard and tackle. The top two guards were off the board, Andre Gurode of Colorado and Toniu Fonoti of Nebraska. But Bentley is the best center prospect in the draft, and fully capable of playing guard as well. A solid choice in the second round.

In the third, the Saints needed to address outside linebacker, the secondary, or grab a solid backup runningback.

With Keith Mitchell on the way out and Darrin Smith approaching the end of his NFL career, the Saints need a guy who can contribute at outside linebacker immediately and start in the near future. LB's Saleem Rasheed of Alabama, Ben Leber of Kansas State and Rocky Calmus of Oklahoma dropped of the board in the early third round.

Backups at cornerback and free safety were needed, perhaps someone to compete with Richard Newsome at reserve strong safety. The Saints would also like to add some spice to the backup quarterback and backup tight end competitions. And depth at defensive end and offensive tackle are also needed.

Again, the Saints' man slipped just far enough. OLB James Allen of Oregon State, rated as high as a second rounder with some scouts, was the pick. Dennis Erickson, head coach of Oregon State and personal friend to Saints GM Randy Mueller, almost surely gave his stamp of approval.

Allen is a solid athlete who was held back by recurrent back problems. Allen was one of the top linebackers in the country before a mediocre senior season. He needs some development, but should contribute immediately on special teams and get some playing time at outside linebacker. Whether he ends up at weak side or strong side is uncertain but Allen definitely should be able to start after his rookie season.

Going into the second day the Saints had artfully secured long-term prospects for all of their immediate needs. They didn't need to reach or trade up for any player they wanted. A combination of luck and patience secured four future starters for the franchise.

In the fourth, the Saints got great value in Nebraska CB Keyou Craver, a smaller but very solid cornerback with a history of special teams excellence. Craver's arrival probably means that nickel back Kevin Mathis, his neck injury and his excessive cap number will be gone, possibly not until after June 1. Craver will challenge Michael Hawthorne for the top nickel back job. He may also get some action at punt returner.

One player that also would have been a solid choice in the 4th round was Miami FB/RB Najeh Davenport, who could have stepped into the backup runningback job right away. Davenport dropped out of the first day with a broken foot before the Rose Bowl but went to the Packers at the end of the 4th round.

In the 5th round, the Saints were again looking for the best available player at needed positions. Free safety Melvin Mitchell was a solid choice. He was a member of a surprisingly talented secondary at small Western Kentucky university. One of his teammates, cornerback Joseph Jefferson, was a 3rd round choice to the Indianapolis Colts. Another teammate, CB Bobby Sippio, is a highly sought-after free agent.

Mitchell, a good free safety prospect, runs a 4.55 in the 40 and benched 225 pounds 15 times. Mitchell is a very talented player who comes to the Saints in an interesting situation. Starting FS Jay Bellamy is coming off a lousy season and despite being in the second year of a four-year contract, continued disappointment could lead to the Saints giving Mitchell a shot.

After the fifth round, teams can't really look for players by position. Rather teams look to take best available players, at positions where a late-round pick has a chance of making the team. With that philosophy in mind, the Saints used their two sixth-round picks on a pair of offensive prospects, UC-Davis QB JT O'Sullivan and Penn State TE John Gilmore Jr.

O'Sullivan is a fiery, intense and intelligent player with natural leadership skills, good open-field running skills, and a strange delivery. O'Sullivan has plenty of potential but is a project.

Quarterbacks coach Mike Sheppard has a warm lump of clay out of which to mold a quarterback who could be a very solid backup in the near future. O'Sullivan will immediately be able to give Jeff Lewis a run for his money. One scout I talked with said that the former teammate of Saints receiver Onome Ojo would even be able to give Jake Delhomme a challenge for the #2 quarterbacks job... this summer. A solid prospect pickup for the Saints.

Gilmore was the team MVP and an emotional leader of the Nittany Lions as a senior. At 6'3, 265 pounds, he reminds of current Saints TE Lamont Hall. Gilmore is a solid blocker but an unpolished receiver. In the end, Gilmore could become just as good a blocker as Hall and a better receiver. Gilmore is by no means a two-way tight end prospect yet, and will have to fight off Boo Williams and Johnny Mitchell for a roster spot.

In the seventh round the Saints took a player that may be the most intriguing prospect of them all. DE Derrius Monroe of Virginia Tech has a shadowy past that includes missing the entirety of the 2000 season because of an arrest for felony drug charges. The criminal charges were dropped when VT suspended Monroe for the season. Monroe returned to the team in 2001 but didn't get a chance at a starting job.

Despite his problems, Monroe has a violent, unstoppable motor that drives his impressive athletic frame. He runs the 40 in 4.56 seconds... meaning that he has just as much straight-line speed as safety Melvin Mitchell but is 50 pounds heavier. Monroe has both the quickness and power to rush the passer. At 6'3, 269 pounds has the necessary build to succeed in the pros, although he may never grow into a full-time starter at defensive end. Will he get his act together? If he does, he'll be able to compete with NFL Europe player Jermaine Miles for a roster spot.

Out of nine picks, none will have to step into a starting position, although some could earn starting jobs. Donte Stallworth will fight Jerome Pathon for the starting job across from Joe Horn, Charles Grant will share time with Willie Whitehead, LeCharles Bentley will compete with Mitch White, Tutan Reyes, and Spencer Folau for the starting right guard spot, and James Allen will compete with Darrin Smith for a starting spot across from Sedrick Hodge. Keyou Craver could win the starting nickelback job over Michael Hawthorne in time, but Fred Thomas and Dale Carter as entrenched as starters. Melvin Mitchell will backup Jay Bellamy. J.T. O'Sullivan will fight Jeff Lewis for a roster spot. John Gilmore Jr. will fight Boo Williams and Johnny Mitchell for a roster spot. Derrius Monroe will fight Jermaine Miles for a roster spot, if the Saints decide to keep eight defensive lineman. The Saints kept only seven d-linemen on the roster last year.

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