Saints trade 4th-round pick, get linemen
METAIRIE, La. -- Words like character, intelligence and toughness were used to describe the New Orleans Saints' 10 new players and team officials said that theme was key when negotiating this year's NFL draft, especially after watching last year's 3-13 team fall apart.
"We felt like for the prior three years ... we're we're in that, 9-7, 8-8, just trying to get over the hump, then last year, when you have adversity, you find out a lot of things about yourself," said general manager Mickey Loomis. "It exposes some things and we needed to correct that."
On Sunday, the Saints focused on linemen on both sides of the ball. They traded their early fourth-round pick in the NFL Draft to Philadelphia for veteran defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and the Eagles' fourth-round pick.
New Orleans then used the No. 108 selection on offensive tackle Jahri Evans out of Bloomsburg, a Division II program in Pennsylvania.
"Obviously Bloomsburg is a different level of competition which is a little bit of a concern, but we really liked this kid," Saints director of player personnel Rick Mueller said. "He's got a lot of strength, he throws people around. He certainly has all the physical tools we're looking for."
In later rounds, the Saints chose Purdue defensive end Robert Ninkovich, Oregon State wide receiver Michael Hass, Pittsburgh cornerback Bernard Lay, Northwestern offensive lineman Zach Strief and Hofstra tight end Marques Colston, who Mueller said will be used as a receiver.
The Saints also reached an agreement Sunday, as soon as the draft ended, to sign Grambling State's record-setting quarterback, Bruce Eugene, to a rookie free-agent contract.
Eugene put up stunning passing numbers at Grambling, once throwing for 618 yards and seven touchdowns in a 50-7 blowout of Prairie View A&M last season. He threw for 4,408 yards and 56 touchdowns in the Southwestern Athletic Conference last season.
"We're excited about him," Mueller said, noting that one of the Saints' goals was to find a young quarterback with potential that they could try to develop. "He's a New Orleans kid. He was a guy we certainly targeted and we certainly wanted."
Meanwhile, Mueller said Evans eventually may play tackle in the NFL but likely would start at guard.
Although Evans enrolled at a small school, he played big -- at 335 pounds. He was an unanimous selection to The Associated Press Little All-America team, which is essentially the All-America team for players in Divisions II and III, as well as from the NAIA.
"I expect to play whatever position they put me in. Guard is fine," Evans said. "Right now my guess would be guard, so that is what I'm looking forward to playing right now."
Evans blasted open holes for fellow Little All-America selection Jamar Brittingham, who ran for 2,260 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2005. He said he would love to do the same for new Saints running back Reggie Bush.
"He is one of the best and I will be happy to be right by his side blocking for him and opening holes for him -- whatever he needs -- as long as he gets to the end zone," Evans said. "At Bloomsburg we basically ran the ball a lot. Running the ball is kind of my upside and what I do best."
Mueller said Evans would need a lot of work on his pass blocking technique, but that Saints scouts believe he is a quick learner.
Thomas, meanwhile, has played a decade in the NFL, all with the Eagles, but said he sensed an impending trade.
"This gives me a fresh start," Thomas said. "I know they expect me to come in and make plays, or they wouldn't have brought me in. I feel like they feel like I'm a play maker. I'll try to be a leader by example."
Thomas was signed by Philadelphia as a rookie free agent prior to the 1996 season out of Northern Illinois. He was never drafted, but on Sunday, "I told somebody I felt like I was a draft pick," he said, laughing.
Thomas, who goes by the nickname "Tank," started 12 games last season and played in all of them, finishing with 65 tackles, 37 solo.
New Orleans used its fifth round choice on Rob Ninkovich, who played two seasons at Purdue after two years in junior college. Ninkovich also has played often on special teams, even performing backup long-snapper duties in junior college.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to play in the NFL and I'm going to make the best of my opportunity now that my foot's in the door," he said, adding he was looking forward to joining fellow Purdue alumnus Drew Brees.
Mueller noted that Ninkovich was recruited by Purdue at a tight end and has caught touchdown passes on short-yardage situations. In terms of his versatile mental approach to the game, he draws comparisons to New England's Mike Vrabel, Mueller said.
With the second pick of the sixth round, the Saints took the 6-foot, 210-pound Hass, a three-year starter for the Beavers who finished his college career with 3,924 yards receiving, a school record.
New Orleans had an additional sixth round pick which had been acquired from Green Bay, and used it on Lay. He started all 11 games for Pitt in 2005, finishing with 29 tackles and three interceptions. The Panthers named him their defensive most valuable player and he was named to the All-Big East Conference first team.
In the seventh and final round, the Saints had their regular pick and a compensatory selection. They took 6-foot-7, 349-pound Strief and the 6-4 Colston.
Mueller said the Saints will use Colston as a receiver, rather than a tight end, because of his speed.
"You look at our receiver group, we don't have a lot of big guys," Mueller said. "This guy brings a good speed-size combination. We get some depth there with a guy that gives us something different that we don't have in the size that he has and the potential he has to improve."
Mueller said Strief is an intelligent, tough, hardworking player and "a big human" who could play either right or left tackle.
In the first two rounds on Saturday, the Saints selected Southern Cal Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and Alabama cornerback Roman Harper and also traded their original second-round pick for Cleveland center Jeff Faine.
It left them with more than enough players at some spots, such as safety and running back, with seven players at each position. They did not draft any linebackers, although they do have eight on the roster.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we addressed everything we set out to do because I don't know that we did that," Mueller said. "We added some good players. I'm really happy with the guys we got at the positions we got them. I think we got a lot better."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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