METAIRIE, La. – There are 53 men on the New Orleans Saints' active roster. Nineteen of them share a similar background – they went undrafted coming out of college. Six more Saints were picked in the seventh round (most by other teams), meaning 25 active players, or more than 47 percent of New Orleans' team, got here the hard way.
It's not uncommon for guys who don't get drafted to still make the league and even flourish – no one wanted the game's top back right now, Arian Foster of the Houston Texans. Tom Brady was famously the 199th player taken in his draft.
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Having this concentration of such players – on a team as good, as talented and as explosive as New Orleans – though is stunning.
These are the scrap-heap Saints, currently 14-3 and headed full throttle into Saturday's divisional round playoff game at San Francisco. It's become a point of pride for the franchise. Around the locker room they point to the keen eye of the scouting staff and the savvy of general manager Mickey Loomis.
More often than not, though, they cite the culture created by head coach Sean Payton, who perhaps more than anyone in the NFL has managed to block out résumés from his week-to-week evaluations. Instead, he trusts what he sees, not what someone else, or even himself, saw previously.
"I think it's a lot easier to be fair than to try to be fair," Payton said.
Well, perhaps. What isn't easy is being so willing to replace players that you've invested draft picks, money and your own credibility in selecting in the first place. For many, that's an ego bruise that clouds the entire evaluation.
"Sometimes you miss them in the evaluation process," he said with a shrug. "And then sometimes maybe you over-evaluate a player.
"I think what we've just tried to do is evaluate the performance of each player once they get here and really try to separate ourselves from how they arrived here. [We] really try to look at getting the best players on the field regardless of whether they were drafted or signed as free agents or in some cases even in workouts situations.
"We just try to go by what we see on the field."
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In some way Payton wants a near faceless roster; the best man is the best man. There are added points for character, too. It all sounds simple, so common sense. It's a lot harder to actually implement, on any level in any sport.
"I've bounced around in this league and it's been a tough road," said starting fullback Jed Collins, who scored four touchdowns on just 15 regular-season touches in 2011. "But this is the first place that at the beginning of training camp Coach Payton says, 'I don't care how you got into the room, once you're in the room you have an equal chance to make the team.' "
Collins' route here is a common one. He went undrafted out of Washington State in 2008, spent time on the practice squads of Philadelphia, Arizona, Chicago and Cleveland and hit the training camps of Kansas City and Tennessee. Other than two games on the Browns' active roster in 2008 (he saw no action), he'd done nothing until this season with the Saints.
"You look around our offense, you look around our defense, it's a proven point," Collins said. "Once the pads go on and the ball is snapped, they don't care if you're a first-rounder, or traded for, a free agent, whatever. If you can play football they are going to find a spot for you."
It's not that the Saints don't have some high picks or big-name players. Six starters are first-rounders and superstar quarterback Drew Brees was a second-rounder the team signed as a free agent and built everything around.
The opportunity to step up, however, is ever present. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Christopher Ivory went undrafted. Same with cornerback Jabari Greer. Marques Colston, who's averaged 75 receptions and eight TDs in six seasons, was a seventh-rounder. It goes on and on. There are guys who were set to sell insurance. Others who were ready to get into high school coaching. And some who swore this was their last attempt at the NFL.
"We give them an opportunity to play," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "I don't care where they're drafted. I don't care how much money you make. That is not my fault or my problem. If you are here and you prepare well and you practice well, you're going to play."
The Saints' players, both the unwashed and the guys who were projected to be here, all say there are some interesting byproducts of the culture. First is a reminder that no matter how big your expectations, nothing is guaranteed. Not even your jersey.
"You don't have a security blanket here," said wide receiver Robert Meachem, a first-rounder out of Tennessee.
Then there is a sense of team that is forever raved about in New Orleans. Locker room politics are at a minimum, some players say, because the premium is on performance and the evaluations are fair. Not every player is satisfied with the depth chart, but they can't say they didn't have a chance.
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"One thing Coach Payton has always stressed from day one is high-character guys in the locker room who want to get along with each other through thick or thin," said offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod. "And that's truthfully what we have. When [you go] out on the football field you want to fight for that guy and it doesn't matter who it is. You know he's going to be the same mentality-type person.
"Résumé doesn't mean anything. They just want to bring guys in who can play and fight to get the job done. Prepare the way that Coach Payton envisions his guys preparing."
So here they are, the high-powered Saints, charging toward a second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons. They win with grit and toughness, of course, because this is football. They also win with a record-setting offense and the kind of explosive potential that has everyone in the NFL on edge.
And it's not with a roster stuffed with former college All-Americans or glamour picks and big-name free agents. Instead it's a disproportionately large collection of guys who, finally given their crack at stability, have wound up playing like they belonged all along.
"You give a guy an equal opportunity," Collins said, "and some will surprise you."
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