METAIRIE, La. (AP) - The New Orleans Saints have mined the later rounds of past drafts for some of their most talented starters -- star wide receiver Marques Colston and All-Pro offensive guard Jahri Evans, to name a couple.
If general manager Mickey Loomis and his scouting team were going to conjure up similar late-round magic, this would be the year to do it; the Saints aren't slated to make their first pick until late in the third round, at 89th overall.
New Orleans has no 2012 first-round choice because that was traded last year, along with a 2011 second-round pick, to New England so the Saints could draft running back Mark Ingram.
Loomis is going to oversee this draft amid investigations by the NFL and by law enforcement.
The probe into New Orleans' bounty system that led to a season-long suspension for head coach Sean Payton and an eight-game suspension for Loomis also cost the Saints second-round picks this year and next, although it is possible the NFL will change next year's lost pick to a later round.
Loomis also finds himself at the center of a wire-tapping investigation in which he allegedly had the ability to listen to opposing coaches' radio communications during games at the Superdome. Loomis and the team have denied allegations, but the Louisiana State Police announced Tuesday that they look into the situation.
While Loomis remains confident in the Saints' ability to find late-round steals in this year's draft, he stopped short of minimizing the harm that the loss of a second-round pick could do.
"It can be very damaging," Loomis said, rattling off examples of past second-rounders who became key Saints. "It could mean the loss of (strong safety) Roman Harper, or of (recently retired former Pro Bowl right tackle) Jon Stinchcomb, or the ability to acquire Mark Ingram."
While cornerback Tracy Porter has left for Denver in free agency, he was also a second-round pick who made his fair share of big plays during the Saints' 2009-10 Super Bowl run.
The Saints could always trade a top draft pick from a future year to get back into one of the top two rounds this season, though Loomis termed that possibility as an "unlikely" one.
Such a trade would have to be done without consulting Payton, who will be missing his first draft with New Orleans since the Saints gave him his first head coaching job in 2006.
New Orleans slated to have five draft choices overall, one each in rounds three through seven. Still, Saints scouts have continued researching and evaluating prospects projected for every round in much the same way they have in the past, just in case a good opportunity to move up presents itself.
"We still must evaluate (all players) for future decisions, such as possible trades," Loomis said.
Loomis declined to say whether there was a particular position where the Saints would target in the draft. Based on the current roster, the areas where depth appears to be most needed is along the interior defensive line and at cornerback.
Defensive tackles who are projected as third-round picks include Alameda Ta'amu of Washington, Billy Winn of Boise State and Mike Martin out of Michigan. Enticing picks at cornerback, should they be available, could include LSU's Ron Brooks and Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward.
Then there's always the possibility the Saints will see a potential contributor on offense that they cannot resist. Drew Brees had tremendous success last season throwing to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham (99 catches, 1,310 yards, 11 TDs). If Louisiana-Lafayette tight end Ladarius Green is available, New Orleans could find him hard to pass up.
The Saints have had much of their late-round success with offensive lineman, though players at that position sometimes take a couple seasons to develop. Like Evans, Saints starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod was a former fourth-rounder. Unlike Evans, who started immediately, Bushrod did not play an offensive snap until his third season. Zach Strief, a seventh-rounder in 2006, didn't become a starter until 2011, though he might have moved up the depth chart quicker if he hadn't been playing behind Stinchcomb through 2010.
In 2008, the Saints took a chance on Carl Nicks in the fifth round. His draft status had plummeted because of an arrest while he was at Nebraska. Nicks took over the starting job early in his rookie season, eventually became an All-Pro and never gave up the job until leaving for Tampa Bay this year in free agency.
New Orleans quickly responded to Nicks' departure with the free-agent signing of Ben Grubbs, and other free agent signings on defense have left few glaring holes in starting the lineup as the Saints seek a fourth-straight playoff appearance.
That'll lessen the pressure to find an instant starter in the later rounds of the draft, and allow the Saints to take the kind of big-picture, long-term view that might help them make the best of the picks they do have.
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