The New Orleans Saints are a franchise with a propensity for finding and unearthing undrafted gems who make major contributions while playing for the team.
Since 2006, unearthing undrafted gems seems to be a unique talent for the New Orleans front office and scouting department.
The list of undrafted players to impact the New Orleans Saints is uncanny. The Saints Hall of Fame has men with names like Pierre Thomas and Lance Moore.
Moore was first with Cleveland before signing with the Saints.
In 2018, the Saints organization enshrined Thomas and Moore for their 'Saintly' contributions to its recent success. FYI, both scored in the Super Bowl 44 victory for New Orleans.
The "Beer Man," aka Michael Lewis, has his portrait in the Saints HOF as a 2015 inductee.
His incredible story as a native New Orleanian, Arena League phenom, to the NFL Europe developmental league, Lewis kept proving his talent at each level. It earned Lewis a roster spot in New Orleans, and he became a Saints legend.
Lest we forget how Marques Colston nearly missed being drafted by a few selections in the 2006 NFL Draft, he could have easily been Mr. Irrelevant or on the undrafted rookie list.
REPEATING HISTORY IN NEW ORLEANS
But that's the past. But in New Orleans, history has a way of repeating.
All-Pros WR/KR Deonte Harris and S J.T. Gray are two highly successful undrafted free agents who found a niche with the Saints.
Last season, I noticed the video of Marquez Callaway and had a feeling about the young Tennessee wide receiver.
When I had the opportunity to ask Coach Payton about his progress during Saints training camp, his thoughtful response let me know he believed Callaway was a find for New Orleans.
Also, defensive tackle Malcolm Roach out of UT made his mark in training camp and notched 16 tackles (7 solo) in nine games.
Both rookies made the 53-man squad. A knee injury to Callaway partially derailed his season, but he contributed 21 receptions for 213 yards to a struggling wide receiving corps.
WHY ARE THE SONS OF SAINTS 2021 GEMS?
Wide receiver Jalen McCleskey (*) and defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal, Jr. are sons of former New Orleans Saints players J.J. McCleskey and Lorenzo Neal, Sr., respectively.
In 2021, their sons joined New Orleans in the same year like they once did.
The two fathers entered the league with New Orleans in 1993. Oddly enough, they both left the Saints in 1996.
I placed an asterisk by Jalen McCleskey's name only because Atlanta signed him as an undrafted free agent last season. However, he never played a down for the Falcons.
Jalen participated in Tulane's Pro Day, but the Saints did not show much of an interest. He received a call for one of the team's mid-week workouts.
While traveling home after the session, the Saints called McCleskey in his car and offered the New Orleans native a deal.
Lorenzo Neal, Jr. hails from a college program the New Orleans Saints are well aware of, Purdue - Drew Brees' alma mater.
Neal had an uneven career with the Boilermakers after an outstanding freshman campaign.
He suffered an ACL injury and was not quite the dominant force early in his tenure in West Lafayette.
Some analysts projected Neal, Jr. as a later-round draft choice in the 2021 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, no team reached out with an undrafted rookie free agent offer immediately following the end of the draft.
The Saints camp invited Neal to the team's rookie minicamp. After the completion of the workouts, New Orleans offered him a contract on May 16.
CAN THEY MAKE THE SQUAD?
The two young players in McCleskey and Neal are not guaranteed roster spots because of their names. As in the case of Pierre Thomas, hard work and on-the-field production early in training camp can help catch Sean Payton's eye.
A CASE FOR MCCKLESKEY
In McCleskey's case, New Orleans needs a player to claim the number two wide-receiver role after several years of searching. Emmanuel Sanders was becoming acclimated in the spot, but his compensation and the state of the Saints cap situation prohibited him from staying in New Orleans.
Tre'Quan Smith will have his chance as the 3-year veteran opposite of Michael Thomas, but is he better in the slot versus outside?
McCleskey to media he "brings more speed, a vertical threat, and able to control the middle of the field...and I can pretty much run any route that is on the route tree. Outside, inside, so I feel I'm bringing more diversity."
A versatile skillset is an advantage for any player in New Orleans - and they love players who can deliver.
If Jameis Winston wins the starting job at quarterback, expect top-end speed guys to become a value in the Saints offense. He likes to take his shots and excels at passing downfield. A vertical threat or threat keeps defenses off-balance and prevents them from stacking the box against the run. McCleskey, Deonte Harris, and perhaps seventh-round pick Kawaan Baker offer this possibility at wide receiver this season.
A CASE FOR NEAL, JR.
A case for Neal, Jr. rests when New Orleans traded elite run-stuffer Malcom Brown, to the Jacksonville Jaguars and allowed former first-round choice Sheldon Rankins to walk in the offseason. The Saints need defensive tackle help.
David Onyemata is now the unquestioned leader of the interior defensive linemen. Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, Ryan Glasgow, Albert Huggins, and Jalen Dalton are vets with playing time in the NFL. Neal and Josiah Bronson are two rookies jockeying to join the usual four-to-five-man rotation. Notwithstanding, recent free-agent signee Tanoh Kpassagnon at 6-7 and 289 pounds, could slide inside as he did in Kansas City.
Does Neal have a chance? Yes, his play, injuries, and situational need could aid his cause.
Neal and McCleskey face an uphill battle to don the black and gold uniforms in New Orleans. Again, if they perform well during the OTAs and training camp, workout, listen to coaching, apply teaching on the field, the probability of joining the 16-man practice squad is not far-fetched.
Most Who Dats love great stories, and having two sons of former New Orleans Saints players to make the team would be an inspiration to many.