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Saints' draft picks off to slow start

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; Coach Payton says they have 'a lot of work ahead of them' Friday, August 03, 2007 By Jeff Duncan JACKSON, MISS. -- It's dangerous to draw conclusions about rookies one week into their first NFL training camp. After all, at ...

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Old 08-03-2007, 10:50 PM   #1
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Cool Saints' draft picks off to slow start

Coach Payton says they have 'a lot of work ahead of them'

Friday, August 03, 2007
By Jeff Duncan

JACKSON, MISS. -- It's dangerous to draw conclusions about rookies one week into their first NFL training camp. After all, at this stage a year ago in Saints camp, Roman Harper and Jahri Evans were backups, and Marques Colston was an afterthought.

Nevertheless, it says something about the Saints' rookie class this season when the most impressive newcomer, cornerback Usama Young, still is running with the third-team defense.

A week into camp, few members of the Saints' seven-man draft class have distinguished themselves, much less fostered comparisons to Reggie Bush. In fact, each of the seven finds himself closer to the bottom of the depth chart than to the top as the club prepares for its preseason opener against Pittsburgh on Sunday in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

"They're making progress," Saints Coach Sean Payton said this week. "These games will give us a great opportunity to see them in the line of fire. There's still a lot of work ahead of them."

Injuries and extenuating circumstances have contributed to the class's slow start. So has the improved depth on the roster.

The headliner, wide receiver Robert Meachem, a first-round pick from Tennessee, remains buried behind a handful of veterans in the pecking order as he battles back from a knee injury that stunted his progress this summer.

He has shown flashes of ability but just as often has found himself at the end of a tongue-lashing from receivers coach Curtis Johnson. He also appears to be favoring the right knee he injured at a minicamp earlier this summer.

"He's a rookie," Brees said. "I don't care how good he is. You're always going to have coaches yelling at you, and teammates for that matter. That's just part of being a rookie, but he's doing great. For him, learning a new offense and gaining confidence after coming off of the knee surgery, the more reps he gets and more comfortable he gets out here, the better he's going to get. He made some great plays. He did some things today that I've seen him working on over the last week. He's been working and repping and those things are going to start to pay off."

Young, from Kent State and the first of the Saints' two third-round picks, has raised eyebrows with his eye-popping athleticism. His 43-inch vertical jump was one of the highest of any college prospect in April's draft, and he has used it to snare a couple of interceptions in practice.

Young, too, has battled a lingering injury. He strained a thigh muscle on the first day of camp and missed a couple days of practice before returning to the field Sunday. He said he is not 100 percent healed, but he's willing to play through the injury to avoid falling further behind.

"Usama's had more reps than Robert when you look at those two players," Payton said. "He had the whole offseason consisting of minicamp and the OTA's (organized team activities), whereas Robert was down. Both of them have a lot being thrown on their plates as well as the rest of the rookie class."

Young has worked almost exclusively with the third-team defense, but he has gradually worked his way into the second-team rotation in the nickel defense. He has intercepted at least four passes, including two that he returned for scores and another that he stabbed with a diving, one-handed catch.

"It's a process that all the rookies are going through right now," Young said. "We're trying to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, and take it out on the field and play well. We're all out there competing. I want to move up (the depth chart) as much as possible. All the rookies, we started from the bottom because those vets have been here and have been putting in work. We've got to try to get on their level."

The other rookie corner, David Jones, also has had his moments while working primarily with the third and fourth team at left corner. He's produced fewer big plays than Young but has been steady. At 6 feet, 196-pounds, he, like Young, brings much-needed size to the secondary.

"You love to have big corners if you can get 'em, and those two guys have a chance," defensive backs coach Tom Hayes said. "But they've got a long way to go. They've got a lot to learn, not only in playing the position but in the whole scheme and how it fits. That's a lot for young guys, so it takes them awhile. But they're both talented and they both love to work hard. They're both just going to get better. Time on the job is their issue right now."

Like cornerback, offensive lineman is a difficult position to make an impact as a rookie. Andy Alleman and Jermon Bushrod have found that out this week as they absorb the rude awakening of their first week of live action against NFL defensive linemen.

Alleman, a third-round pick from Akron, is listed as the second-team left guard behind Jamar Nesbit. He plays with a mean streak and is one of the strongest players on the roster, but like most of his classmates, he struggles with the typical rookie ups and downs.

"The thing that's hard for young linemen when they come into the NFL is when you go through minicamp and OTAs, it's not at full speed with actual hitting," offensive coordinator Doug Marrone said. "So they get a false sense of how powerful players are at this level. There's a tremendous transition that those players have to go through when they are in camp. Some players make that transition faster than others. Jahri Evans made it very quickly. (But) Jahri's a strong, powerful player to begin with."

Bushrod, a massive 6-5, 315-pound tackle from Towson, is working at third-team left tackle behind Jammal Brown and Zach Strief and has displayed impressive athleticism. He also made a mark during a traditional rookie initiation session with an inspired version of "Lean on Me" at the team dinner in the Millsaps cafeteria.

"He's a guy that seems very comfortable over there on the left side," Payton said. "He's handled this transition fairly well. It's encouraging."

Running back Antonio Pittman, a fourth-round pick from Ohio State, has the aggressive attitude and versatile package Payton likes in his backs. Trapped behind perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the NFL in Deuce McAllister and Bush, Pittman figures to make his mark on special teams.

Linebacker Marvin Mitchell of Tennessee is trying to follow in the cleats of Colston and defy the long odds of making the roster as a seventh-round pick. The 6-3, 249-pound run-stuffer has made a positive impression with his physical play. He's pushing veteran Brian Simmons, who is the backup to incumbent starter Mark Simoneau.

"(Marvin) Mitchell . . . has done a pretty good job," Payton said. "He's not afraid of contact. He's handled this early part of training camp. He's in good shape."

Of the undrafted rookies, quarterback Tyler Palko might have the best shot of making the roster. Similar in many ways to former Saints and current Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, he's made several glaring mistakes but also shows moxie and leadership.

"Tyler's a little bit new to what we're doing, but he has an air of confidence to him," Payton said. "The one thing you see quickly from a rookie player is his ability to come, pick things up, digest it, come to the line of scrimmage -- and those are positives."

Saints coaches said they'll know more about the rookies after the exhibition games, where they are expected to see extended action. Until then, it's difficult to gauge their potential to contribute this season.

"When you get into the game, you will see a lot more," Maronne said. "I think you get a better chance for a pure evaluation. That's not to say that you're not looking at everything and watching right now, because we are and spend a lot of time evaluating."

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