But over the last couple years, the flow of free agents has gone from the Wabash River in Indiana to the mouth of the mighty Mississippi. The league's Mecca for free agents remains Indianapolis, where team president Bill Polian and his superb staff of personnel evaluators annually identify walk-ons with a chance of actually playing in the NFL, and where at least one undrafted rookie has made the Colts' regular-season roster for six straight years.
But in New Orleans, where general manager Mickey Loomis and director of college scouting Rick Reiprish are unearthing talent from the country's football hinterlands, they're certainly catching on.
That was obvious on Friday night, when free agent tailback Chris Ivory gathered in a fairly innocuous swing pass in the fourth quarter and rambled 76 yards for a score. Never mind that Ivory was facing the dregs of the San Diego bench at the time of the touchdown. The rookie back, from Division II Tiffin all of places, ran through tackles, exhibited terrific vision and cutback ability and breakaway speed to locate an end zone to which he wouldn't be denied.
Entering the exhibition finale, Ivory leads the Saints in rushes (37) and yards (141).
Maybe he won't earn a gameday uniform when the Saints make their final cuts in a week, but Ivory certainly has a shot. Earlier this week, The Sports Xchange detailed how New Orleans was running out of tailbacks, having lost Mike Bell in free agency, and with Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill having sustained season-ending injuries. New Orleans signed veteran free agents Ladell Betts and DeShawn Wynn to assuage a shrinking body count.
Turns out coach Sean Payton, the master of the tailback whirling dervish, might have had an answer right under his nose all along.
"All any player ever wants is a (legitimate) shot," Ivory said after the touchdown on Friday night. "And (the Saints have) shown they'll give it to you. If you get a chance ... then it's up to you to do the rest."
There were similar words last year from Indianapolis cornerback Jacob Lacey, who started more games in 2009 (nine) than any undrafted player in the league. And the rookie free agents who have made the Colts' rosters in the past generally utter those same sentiments. It's one thing to say you're going to ignore draft status and signing bonuses, and pay lip service to an egalitarian bent toward rookies, and an altogether other thing to do it.
For years in Indianapolis, they've been turning the cheap promises into serviceable young players, and now team officials are starting to do the same in New Orleans. You think that kind of reputation doesn't help a club in that frantic hour or so after the draft every year, when scouts are hitting the phones hard, scrambling to sign the remnant guys they deemed draftable, but who fell through the cracks?
"It means something," said Jonathan Casillas, a 2009 free agent who is now making his own impact with the Super Bowl champions.
Besides Ivory, who could find a spot on the only team from 2009 where four tailbacks had 30 or more carries, another Division II refugee, defensive end Junior Galette of Stillman, might capture a spot. He's a slam-dunk to at least be on the practice squad. An undrafted free agent from 2009, Casillas, has started every preseason game at weak-side linebacker, and looks to have won the once-heated competition to replace the departed Scott Fujita.
The team's starting tailback, Pierre Thomas, joined the Saints as an undrafted player in 2007.
It's a fact, New Orleans has more taverns than churches, and that's notable for such a spiritually driven town. But an undrafted player no longer has to be drunk out his mind to realize he's got more than a prayer of a chance of earning s spot on the Saints' roster.
Yeah, we know: Only a week or so ago, we were authoring for The Sports Xchange a column warning that fans should not assign too much import to the performances of free agents in preseason games. We still feel that way. And the numbers, with about 30-32 undrafted players per year making regular-season rosters over the past five campaigns, haven't changed, either.
But there are franchises that stand a better chance of uncovering some of the 30-32 players because they turn over every stone in pursuit of talent, and because they really are equal opportunity employers. The Saints quickly are gaining a reputation as one of those teams.
The anthem, in an ever-rebuilding New Orleans remains "When the Saints Come Marching In," and that theme song probably has more significance than ever given the results of Super Bowl XLIV. But increasing these days, the high-steppin' folks following the parade to Saints headquarters in suburban Metairie are undrafted free agents who legitimately share the aspirations of a city rising on hope.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.
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