Small-school players often have big-time impact with Saints

Saints’ mantra: Scout the player, not the school

In an effort to find the next player or players who’ll help them win — now and in the future — the Saints, like most NFL teams, leave no stone unturned in a never-ending search for talent.

Photo courtesy New Orleans Saints -- Saints director of player personnel Ryan Pace, right, with General Manager Mickey Loomis at spring training last year. Pace and Loomis consistently scour smaller schools to find big talent.
Photo courtesy New Orleans Saints -- Saints director of player personnel Ryan Pace, right, with General Manager Mickey Loomis at spring training last year. Pace and Loomis consistently scour smaller schools to find big talent.

Players come in all shapes and sizes, and similarly, come from schools big and small. And the Saints — especially since Sean Payton’s arrival in 2006 — have made identifying the “little guys” a huge part of an important process.

That philosophy starts at the top with Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis, Saints director of player personnel Ryan Pace said recently.

“Since Sean got here in ’06, he and Mickey have stressed that it doesn’t matter where these guys come from,” Pace said. “Once they get here, they’re all going to be evaluated on the same plane.”

Whether the Saints do it better than any other team is debatable, of course, but there’s no question they have a proven track record with some of their finds during Payton’s tenure.

Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Jermon Bushrod, Akiem Hicks and Terron Armstead may be household names now. But when they were drafted, Saints’ fans might have been more likely to respond with a resounding “Who Dat?”

The same goes for a large group of undrafted free agents that includes Junior Galette, Travaris Cadet, Joseph Morgan, Tyrunn Walker and Chris Ivory, who was eventually traded to the New York Jets, and more recently, Khiry Robinson, Tim Lelito and Josh Hill.

Each made a regular-season roster with the Saints as rookies despite coming from FCS or Division II schools rather than traditional football factories.

With the NFL draft beginning a three-day run Thursday night, Saints’ officials are prepared to mine the next diamond in the rough, although it’s unquestionably harder to do these days.

But they’re out there, Pace said, if you’re willing to put in the work in to find them and give them an opportunity once they’re in your building.

For years, Payton’s motto has been to judge a prospect on his ability, not on where he played.

You might think that Payton has an affinity for small-school players because he was a record-setting quarterback at Eastern Illinois.

“Since Sean (Payton) got here in ’06, he and Mickey (Loomis) have stressed that it doesn’t matter where these guys come from. Once they get here, they’re all going to be evaluated on the same plane.” RYAN PACE, Saints director of player personnel

Then again, maybe not.

“I wouldn’t say I’m biased toward a small-school player,” Payton said early in his tenure with the Saints. “Obviously, I would be more biased toward a larger-school (player) because of the level of competition, like the SEC, and the type of competition he goes against on a week-in, week-out basis.

“Sometimes, the evaluation process (for a small-school player) is more difficult.”

Which is where the lengthy and time-consuming process starts for Pace and director of college scouting Rick Reiprish and the scouting department — which includes two regional scouts and four area scouts.

It starts in August and September with visits by area scouts to every school in their quadrant of the country, which consists of seemingly endless car rides, and continues with regional scouts who follow up on the initial reports.

Players who receive a good grade initially are sent to another scout, who evaluates them by position. The evaluations are sent to Saints’ position coaches, months after the process begins with that initial on-campus visit.

“When we’re on the road and looking at players, we’re looking under every stone,” Pace said. “Every team is doing that, but maybe there’s almost a little more pride on our part because we have a track record of the smaller-school guys having success here.”

When they get to the Saints, Pace said, the coaches are comparing football players to football players — regardless of where they played.

“Everyone’s evaluated on a clean slate,” he said. “That’s important because your worst fear is cutting somebody who goes on and plays for another team.”

Sometimes, a small-school player’s ability to play at the next level is more evident.

Like with Armstead, a third-round draft pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff who was inserted into the starting lineup at left tackle late last season.

“There are certain traits we know that we value for that position,” Pace said. “So it doesn’t matter if I’m at LSU or Arkansas-Pine Bluff. I’m still watching a left tackle, and I’m still looking for foot quickness, his ability to recover, his balance … all those things.

“You’re checking those off your list and recording what you see.”

Then again, it’s not always seen right away.

Last spring, the Saints signed Robinson out of West Texas A&M after a three-day tryout at their May rookie minicamp.

When they signed Robinson, who wound up rushing for 326 yards in the regular season and postseason, they released Shawne Alston, a former West Virginia standout whom they signed right after the draft.

Even though the Saints appeared to be set in the backfield with Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Cadet, they kept Robinson on the regular-season roster — proving again that it doesn’t matter how you got there.

“Sean always tells them that in the first meeting when they get here for rookie minicamp,” Pace said. “He says, ‘I don’t care if you’re a college free agent, I don’t care if you’re here on a three-day tryout, I don’t care if you’re a first-round draft pick … you’re all being evaluated the same.’ And it’s true.

“That has been reinforced over and over and over,” he added. “So for our area scouts, or any scout in this organization, there’s no hesitation when you’re out looking at a small-school player.”

Even then, there’s still a long way to go to make the roster even if a scout or an assistant coach has strong convictions about a player in April or May.

At the same time, it can be a lot of fun come September.

“When you get one where you really feel like you’ve done a lot of work and stuck your neck out and see it come to fruition, that’s rewarding,” he said with a smile. “That’s the competitive part of you, the part that really enjoys this and loves coming to work every day.

“You almost feel better about them than the obvious ones.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate