March 27, 2003

Rookie Class a Steal

It was the final draft of the Randy Mueller era. The draft that saw draft picks in exchange for departed fan favorites like Willie Roaf and Ricky Williams. The draft that saw the Saints stay put, despite a pair of first round picks, and once again grab a player that inexplicably slipped.

In 2000, the Saints considered moving up to take Darren Howard, and nearly had a deal with the Raiders in place. But they didn't, and Howard fell to them at the top of the second round.

In 2001, Deuce McAllister's improbable fall from top 10 to early 20's in the first round gave the Saints a true gem. The NFC's rushing leader in 2002 wasn't even on the draft boards of the experts when the Saints came up. The Saints passed up on a pair of cornerbacks, Minnesota's Willie Middlebrooks (Denver) and Wisconsin's Jamar Fletcher (Miami), both of which haven't done anything spectacular at this point.

In 2002, the Saints once again were patient. WR Donte Stallworth was highly regarded by the team, especially after Jim Haslett witnessed him tear up the track in the mid-4.2 range at a personal workout. Stallworth, clearly a top 5 talent and the draft's premier receiver, slipped past the first 12 teams, eight of which took linemen. In fact, both Stallworth and Miami CB Philip Buchanon surprisingly slipped to them, but the Saints once again chose not to go for a cornerback in the early rounds.

Stallworth was the most exciting of the draft picks, as well his #13th overall status. One year later the underclassman from Tennessee owns the team record for touchdowns by a rookie with 8, including one in each of his first four games in the NFL. Missed time in training camp and three regular season games with a hamstring injury, and was slowed by it until midseason. Had a six-catch, 111-yard performance against the Bengals when he was a singular spark of the offense. Showed flashes of being an all-around receiver making tough catches and taking immediate hits, speeding past secondaries, and showing excellent open field mobility. Only thing that should slow down this 6'0, 200-pound receiver built like a runningback is his health, and in particular his hamstrings. Be certain that the Saints training staff are working on his flexibility and conditioning this offseason to avoid further hamstring aggravation.

Rookie Class 2002 Stats
player starts/games/stats
Stallworth 7/13, 8 TD, 42 rec, 594 yards
Grant 6/16, 1 TD, 7 sacks, 30 tackles, 1 FR, 1 TD
Bentley 14/14
Allen 1/14, 16 tackles, 1 FR
Craver 0/10, 15 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PD, 1 TD
Mitchell 0/16, 13 tackles
O'Sullivan 0/0
Gilmore cut
Monroe 0/0, cut
Carroll 0/6, 7 tackles

Underclassman Charles Grant represents one of the two first round picks the Saints received in exchange for Ricky Williams. Another underclassman, Grant played in all sixteen games, starting six while alternating with Willie Whitehead (who remains a free agent right now). Collected seven sacks and scored one touchdown after collecting a fumble against Carolina. Finished 11th on the team and fourth on the defensive line with 30 tackles.

Grant showed good development in his discipline as a pass rusher and has plenty of upside to develop into a two-way defensive end. Compared to Joe Johnson last year, but he may have more pass rush skill in the end. The 6'3", 285 end came out of school a year early but will be 25 years old when the season starts. In the first round Saints will be considering Grant's former teammate at Georgia DT Jonathan Sullivan, who also came out early. Like Grant, Sullivan has a ton of physical ability and a very high upside.

The Saints opted for Grant over a pair of highly-regarded cornerbacks in Florida's Lito Sheppard (Philadelphia) and Miami's Mike Rumph (San Francisco), and one of the NFL's top rookies in Miami tight end Jeremy Shockey.

Second round pick LeCharles Bentley was probably the best pick in terms of value. Projected as a center, Bentley slipped to the middle of the second round but finished third in the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year voting. The Saints decided to play Bentley at right guard and he started fourteen games at right guard. Missed two games with an ankle injury. Out of Ohio State, Bentley won the 2001 Rimington Trophy as college football's best center, and will likely end up at snapper eventually. The Saints may choose to keep him at guard in only his second year.

Bentley made an immediate name for himself in his first regular season game, drawing an undesirable matchup against Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland in Tampa Bay. But the rookie met Sapp punch for punch. The rookie so frustrated Sapp that the veteran tried to pick a fight and get the rookie, who was known as a hot-head in college, to commit a personal foul. Bentley, sporting a dark-tinted face shield on his mask, played none of Sapp's games and helped hold Sapp to two tackles and one sack. In their second meeting, Bentley held Sapp to four tackles and no sacks.

In the third round, the Saints addressed their need for depth at the outside linebacker position with Oregon State LB James Allen. Another prospect that slipped to the Saints, Allen was the #2 rated outside linebacker in some scouts' books and is looking to grab the starting weakside job this season from veteran Darrin Smith.

6'2", 240 pound Allen is a big, strong, fast linebacker who wasn't ready to contribute immediately. In the preseason, Texans rookie QB David Carr juked Allen out of his shoes when Allen had Carr pinned in the open field. He saw limited playing time in the regular season on defense and saw mostly special teams headhunting duties. He played in fourteen games (missed two because of injury) and started the season finale when he had three tackles. LB Roger Knight, undrafted in 2001, saw time on defense when Darrin Smith came out instead of Allen in some cases. After a season, the Saints are looking for production from Allen. The same goes for 2001 third-round pick Sedrick Hodge, who was unremarkable last season at strongside linebacker.

On the second day, the Saints had five picks including an extra 6th round selection for RB Chad Morton, a pick that represented the fact that the Jets really stole one of the NFL's best kick retuners from the Saints. It is assuaged by the fact that the Saints themselves have the NFL's Special Teams Player of the Year in KR Michael Lewis.

In the fourth round, the Saints grabbed another slipping prospect, the earliest in the draft the Saints have taken a defensive back since Fred Weary in 1998. CB Keyou Craver slipped out of the first round after a poor offseason of slow workout times and some injury concerns. Always regarded as a top college cover corner and a superb special teams player, but built more like a third-down back, 5'10" 200 pound Craver was slowed this season by a knee injury that kept him out of six games. Before the injury, Craver was playing well and scored a touchdown on a 38-yard fumble return in Game 2 against the Packers. He registered only one pass defense against Cleveland.

In the fifth, the Saints again looked to the secondary and pulled safety Melvin Mitchell from small Western Kentucky University, a school that in a fluke turned out three quality DB prospects in the draft. Mitchell was all the rage of scouts' small-school sleeper prospects. After spending a season mostly on special teams, Mitchell has a shot to crack into the starting lineup if the Saints don't bring in a veteran strong safety. 6'1, 220 pound Mitchell is a big safety who can really run well. Could be a real gem for this team if the Saints can put him on the field.

Two sixth round picks were spent on UC-David QB J.T. O'Sullivan and Penn State TE John Gilmore Jr. Gilmore didn't make it out of the Saints' training camp, but ended up on the Bear's roster. Desperate for healthy tight ends, Chicago started Gilmore in four of eight games. He caught 10 passes for 130 yards.

O'Sullivan was the team's 3rd string quarterback after veteran QB Jeff Lewis flunked out of training camp with the Saints. This year O'Sullivan looks again to be the #3 and will face competition from NFL Europe QB Chris Finlen with the Barcelona Dragons.

In the 7th round the Saints took DE Derrius Monroe out of Virginia Tech. Monroe was a super-fast pass rusher and drew praise from Haslett and even made the final roster out of training camp. But injuries at other positions pushed Monroe off the roster after three weeks on the inactive list and he was grabbed by the Dallas Cowboys.

One undrafted rookie made the team, MLB Travis Carroll out of Florida. At 6'4, 245 pounds he has all the size and instincts you want, but is lacking in agility and speed. Carroll's rookie season was interrupted in week 5 with a broken leg. He was inactive until the season finale when he was activated and returned to the special teams. In training camp, Haslett continuously commented that the former Alabama transfer was always around the ball. Carroll is currently second on the depth chart at MLB behind Orlando Ruff, but more depth is expected at the position in the draft and free agency.

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