Photos by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire; Jim Mahoney/AP; Chris O'Meara/AP

Ten years ago in New Orleans, Sean Payton came on as head coach, Drew Brees signed on at quarterback, and the franchise helped lift the spirits of a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And a decade later, three late-round picks from a unique draft class are still around as franchise cornerstones

By Robert Klemko
August 12, 2015

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — They haven’t had a secret pow-wow or club meeting, but in quiet moments between practices at the luxurious Greenbrier, members of the Saints’ 2006 draft class have acknowledged a rare feat in today’s NFL—three of them are cornerstone players for the franchise, and three more went on to successful careers either with the Saints or other teams.

Fourth-round pick Jahri Evans and seventh-round picks Zach Strief and Marques Colston are entering their 10th seasons in New Orleans, a run that included a Super Bowl XLIV victory; all are still producing at a high level. Safety Roman Harper started 104 games in New Orleans before moving on to the Panthers after the 2013 season. The gray-haired Harper, an integral part of a top-10 defense, is lovingly referred to as “Uncle Rome” by his Carolina teammates.

And the key figure of that draft class, running back Reggie Bush, has made 94 career starts for three teams and nears 9,000 career yards from scrimmage as he joins a fourth team, the 49ers, this season.

“Payton and I talked about it a little bit this week, almost how unexpected it is,” Strief says. “For the guys who are here, including some of the coaches, this is our 10th year together, so there’s obviously a little bit of nostalgia.”

Practicing in the shadow of the sweeping Appalachians at one of the country's oldest and most storied resorts (it once housed a secret relocation bunker for Congress in the event of nuclear war), veterans of that ’06 class recall Payton's first training camp, at Millsaps College in the sweltering August heat of Jackson, Miss.

“It’s funny, because my perception in training camp in 2006 was that none of us were going to last more than a couple of years, really,”​ Strief says. “We were not very good in that preseason. Probably as bad as a team has ever been. I think the organization is in such a different place than it was when we got here, coming out of Katrina, with a really brutal training camp. Whereas now we’ve won a Super Bowl and a few playoff games. It’s just unusual in this league, for players and coaches. To have 10 of us that have been here for 10 years is just uncommon.”

Photo by Michael C. Hebert for Sports Illustrated

It is no coincidence 2006 was also the first year in New Orleans for both coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, arguably the top free agent that year after he turned down a chance to return to San Diego on an incentive-laden extension low on guarantees. But the signing was considered a risky one, with Brees coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder.

“I don’t think anybody guessed even Drew would be here in 10 years,” Strief says. “He was still rehabbing and couldn’t throw the ball well. But now you look back, and it would’ve been impossible without Drew. He’s been our engine. We don’t go without him. He’s become one of the best of all time since he arrived here. As a result a lot of us have stuck around because of the success. The merging of Drew and Sean Payton has been the spark that set this thing in motion.”

Said Brees: "It's pretty incredible that you can have four guys come in at the same time and last 10 years. I consider myself very lucky to have teammates like that and to have had them as long as I've had them."

Harper, the Saints' second-round pick in '06, and Brees played together for eight seasons before "Uncle Rome" headed to Carolina. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

It has been fashionable in the last three or four years to talk about what a mess the Saints’ cap situation has been, and some of that is fair. But in reality, Brees had all the leverage when they awarded him his huge deal in 2012. Jimmy Graham was such a unique weapon that they had to overpay him too, further crippling the cap.

General manager Mickey Loomis had his bad deals here and there, but he's done a remarkable job when you consider how awful this team was pre-2006. Hurricane Katrina, 10 years ago this month, probably should have kicked the Saints to San Antonio. But the team got so good so fast and was so valuable to the region that it's now a permanent fixture.

The Saints’ 2006 draft is worth revisiting not only for it’s big splashes (Colston and Evans) but for the many shrewd and profitable choices made by Loomis, then in his fifth year as GM. (It’s worth noting that the director of college scouting for this draft, Rick Reiprish, was fired in January 2015 after 11 seasons with the team).

First Round

2nd overall pick: Reggie Bush, RB, Southern California

Loomis and Payton figured they were in line for N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams or Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Then the Saints’ brain trust found out over dinner Friday night that the Texans had agreed to a deal with Williams. Bush, seemingly a no-brainer choice at the time, played five injury-riddled season with the Saints; he didn’t eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season until he was traded to the Dolphins in 2011.

Second Round

34th overall pick: Traded to Cleveland for C Jeff Faine and the 43rd overall pick (Cleveland selected Maryland LB D’Qwell Jackson)

43rd overall pick: Roman Harper, S, Alabama

Having lost Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley to the Browns in free agency, Loomis picked up a veteran center in Faine for the price of moving down nine picks. They used that selection to draft Harper. Faine became a Pro Bowl alternate in 2007, his last season with the Saints. Harper started 104 games in New Orleans, was named to the Pro Bowl twice (2009, 2010) and helped lead the Saints to victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

Third Round

No selection. The 66th pick was dealt to Houston the previous year in order to move up from 16th overall to 13th and draft offensive tackle Jammal Brown, who started 58 games and made two Pro Bowls in New Orleans. He tore his ACL in 2009 and joined Washington via trade in 2010. He was replaced in New Orleans by 2007 fourth-round pick Jermon Bushrod, himself a two-time Pro Bowler. (Houston selected Miami OT Eric Winston with this pick.)

Fourth Round

99th overall pick: Traded to Philadelphia for DT Hollis Thomas and the 108th overall pick (Philadelphia selected Georgia G Max Jean-Gilles)

108th overall pick: Jahri Evans, G, Bloobsburg (Pa.)

For the second time in this draft, the Saints traded down nine spots and picked up a veteran piece. Thomas would start 28 games over three seasons in New Orleans. The greatest coup of the draft, however, came with the selection of Evans, an unknown out of Division II Bloomsburg (Pa.). The Saints discovered Evans via a staff connection to the school—scout Jim Monos’ father, Jim Monos Sr., was offensive coordinator there. Monos, an area scout for the southeast, had visited the school and noticed the 6-4 left tackle, who ended up at Bloomsburg after breaking his leg playing basketball as a senior in high school. Moved inside to guard and inserted into the starting lineup at right guard after veteran Jermane Mayberry was injured during training camp, Evans started all 16 games and both playoff games for the Saints as a rookie. A four-time first-team All-Pro who has been to the last six Pro Bowls, Evans has missed just two starts over nine seasons. Monos is now director of player personnel for the Bills.

Fifth Round

135th overall: Rob Ninkovich, DE, Purdue

“The one that got away” according to Payton. Ninkovich played in just three regular-season games over two stints with New Orleans. His first two seasons were limited by knee injuries, and his second chance, in 2009, ended when the Saints gave up on converting him to long-snapper. He has gone on to start 74 games at linebacker and defensive for New England, and sacked Russell Wilson among his six tackles in a Super Bowl XLIX victory. Now 31, he’s penciled in as New England’s starter at left defensive end in 2015.

Sixth round

171st overall: Mike Hass, WR, Oregon State

174th overall: Josh Lay, CB, Pittsburgh (pick acquired from Green Bay in 2004 in a deal that sent QB J.T. O’Sullivan and a 2005 second-round pick to the Packers for CB Mike McKenzie)

The sixth-round was wasted on two players who never made a peep in the NFL—both Hass and Lay were released before the regular season.

Seventh Round

210th overall pick: Zach Strief, OT, Northwestern

252nd overall pick: Marques Colston, WR, Hofstra (supplemental compensatory selection)

Strief, the first-team All-America tackle, said he was more surprised than disappointed after slipping to the seventh round. In a 2006 interview with the Daily Northwestern, he chalked up the fall to poor combine times—while Strief’s agility numbers neared the top of the list, his 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical and broad jump results were among the very worst at the combine for offensive linemen. "I want people to go back and think ‘Man, it's amazing he slipped that far,’ ” he said at the time. After backing up Jon Stinchcomb for five seasons, Strief finally made good on his wish, anchoring the right tackle spot for the next four seasons. In 2014 Strief ranked fifth among starting right tackles in Pro Football Focus’s blocking grades.

The steal of the 2006 draft arrived in New Orleans not merely as a compensatory pick, but as a supplemental compensatory pick. When owners approved a six-year CBA extension in 2006, they agreed to a draft with 255 picks. That year’s draft would have to be rounded out, after the traditional compensatory selections, with supplemental compensatory selections awarded the top five teams in the draft order. A quick Google search unearths some vintage fan skepticism over the compensation. Poster foreverfan on the Saints forum lamented late that March that “#44 in the 7th round guys... that's the 252nd pick in the draft. We could do better signing rookie free agents to contracts.” By virtue of picking second overall, the Saints drafted 252nd overall and landed the man who would become the franchise’s all-time leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. Colston has eclipsed 900 yards receiving in eight of his nine seasons and has 72 career touchdowns and 58 catches in the playoffs, including seven catches for 83 yards in the Super Bowl XLIV victory over Indianapolis. Perhaps more remarkable than achieving all that as a 252nd pick, he’s never been named to a Pro Bowl.

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