Moments after Mr. Irrelevant is picked with the 256th or so pick in the NFL draft, all 32 teams begin the race to land each year’s most desirable undrafted free agents (UDFAs). Within hours, most of the promising talent has already been scooped up onto an NFL roster.
All the pre-draft research on every prospect comes into play as teams scramble to be the first to call those they think can actually make an impact on their team. Saints UDFA wide receiver, Keith Kirkwood, had his current team on his radar since before the combine.
Saints wide receivers coach, Curtis Johnson, called Kirkwood before the combine in an attempt to lure him to New Orleans in the event he wasn’t drafted. “Just from hearing his voice I just knew he was determined to get me here to be a New Orleans Saint,” Kirkwood said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted, so I had my mind set that when things all boiled down I wanted to be a New Orleans Saint.”
Even though Kirkwood is having a great training camp, the Saints crowded receiver corps may be tough to crack. But his presence and willingness to sign with the Saints is a reflection on the growing history of UDFAs becoming quality contributors for the Black and Gold.
Back in 2005, the Saints signed a wide receiver to their practice squad. He had been released by the Cleveland Browns after initially going undrafted. The following season, he was allocated to NFL Europe where he played for the Berlin Thunder before being activated to the Saints roster for the final six games. He was then cut and resigned to the practice squad the next day.
In 2007, Lance Moore finally made his first start for the New Orleans Saints. He then had a career year in 2008.
With Marques Colston out most of the season, Moore amassed 79 receptions for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns. His two point conversion in the Saints’ Super Bowl win cemented his name forever in Saints lore. Last month, he was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame.
Yet the Saints had another franchise Hall of Famer emerge from the undrafted abyss in 2007. Running back Pierre Thomas beat out fourth round pick Antonio Pittman for the final running back spot and never looked back. He scored 41 touchdowns for the Saints over seven seasons, including a very crucial score in their Super Bowl win.
Thomas and Moore may be the most beloved and longest tenured of any undrafted players to make a Saints roster, but they are only a couple names on an even longer list of quality players that have come after them.
In 2008, it was Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Lynell Hamilton. Dunbar played eight years in the league to Hamilton’s four. In 2009, it was Jonathan Casillas. He’s still in the league playing with the Giants and has two Super Bowl rings, one with the Saints and one with the Patriots.
In 2009, it was Junior Galette. He spent four seasons with the Saints, earned a contract extension, and even after two consecutive Achilles tears and numerous off the field issues, still made the Washington roster for three more years before finally waning out of the league.
In 2011, it was Isa Abdul-Quddus and Joe Morgan. In 2012, it was Travaris Cadet and Tyrunn Walker. In 2013, four UDFA’s made the Saints roster. Tim Lelito, Ryan Griffin, Glenn Foster, and current Saints tight end Josh Hill all earned a spot.
In 2014, Brandon Coleman and Kasim Edebali each earned crucial time on the field. And even though it took them another year to realize their potential, in 2016 Ken Crawley and Tommylee Lewis began their journeys towards trusted and valued contributors.
Arthur Maulet has taken his chance from last year’s signing and made the most of it. He’s having a terrific camp and is only making the coaches’ job of cutting the roster down even harder.
But perhaps no one is turning heads more than last year’s UDFA quarterback claimed off of waivers after being cut by the Packers. Taysom Hill has Saints fans excited, whether he’s lighting it up on special teams or showing off his wheels by escaping the pocket.
It’s true. Sean Payton gives UDFAs a fighting chance to make an NFL roster. If college players on the fringe of getting drafted don’t see it, they could be missing out on one of the more promising opportunities in the NFL to leap from unknown and under-appreciated to recognized and maybe even, one day, beloved.