When coach Sean Payton says it doesn’t matter how a player was acquired, he means it. Whether it’s a first-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent, Payton will give playing time to whoever performs in practice.
Payton, much like the Denver Broncos, has a strong history of finding UDFA gems. He used that to his advantage when recruiting undrafted players following the NFL draft in April.
“[In] my history in New Orleans, [we had] a number of [undrafted] free agents on opening day rosters in 15 years, we were [ranked] first,” Payton said on May 13. “Number of undrafted free agents that played the most amount of snaps in their first year, we were first.
“When you’re on the phone after the draft and you’re recruiting, having 16 years of that [and having] to convince a player to come because once they get here, there’s tape on their helmet with their name and now we just go by what we see. How they got here at this point is of no importance to us.”
Payton went on to recall an example of a UDFA out-performing a fourth-round draft pick. In 2007, the Saints drafted Ohio State running back Antonio Pittman in the fourth round. New Orleans then signed Illinois running back Pierre Thomas as an undrafted free agent.
“Oftentimes in our league, mistakes are made maybe in a draft pick. … we had drafted a running back in the fourth round, Pierre Thomas came and clearly in the middle of training camp, he was performing better,” Payton said. “We cut the fourth-round pick and kept Pierre.
“Two years later, he’s in the NFC Championship Game returning the kick in overtime to the 42-yard line, then converting a fourth and one and becoming a real important part of our team. You have to just go by what you see. There are mistakes that occur every year in the draft, but the key is not to compound them and continue to try to force the player.”
Thomas went on to win a Super Bowl with the Saints and he totaled 6,353 yards from scrimmage and scored 40 touchdowns in eight years in New Orleans. Payton did not overlook Thomas because he was a UDFA, and the coach was willing to admit his mistake and cut a fourth-round draft pick.
That kind of history is good news for Denver’s 2023 UDFA class. Anyone who performs on the field will have a legitimate chance to make the 53-man roster, regardless of their draft pedigree or lack thereof.