Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 18, 2000

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / April 18, 2000

The Saints went into this year’s NFL’s version of a Big Bass Tournament (i.e., the draft) with somewhat of a catch limit.Thanks to the previous regime of Mike Ditka and Bill Kuharich and their trade for Ricky Williams, the new regime of Jim Haslett and Randy Mueller went into this year’s draft without a first round and a third round draft pick. In essence, they were being asked to plug up 10 holes in a dike withone hand tied behind their back. Do think they know how LSU basketballcoach John Brady feels having reduced scholarships to offer? Despite starting the tournament late, the Saints appeared to have landed some nice ones to put in the livewell. Needing help on the defensive linewith the loss to free agency of Brady Smith, retirement of Wayne Martin and the uncertain status of Joe Johnson and Jared Tomich, the Saints were able to pick up Kansas State defensive end Darren Howard with their second round pick. A number of publications had Howard going in the firstround.

The Saints have a thoroughbred in Williams. What they needed was aplough horse to clear the way for him. They might have gotten just that bytaking Arizona State fullback Terrelle Smith in the fourth round. TheSaints then went for depth on the offensive line by taking Mississippi tackle Tutan Reyes with their first of three picks in the fifth round. Lastyear showed that you can never have enough solid offensive lineman.

Iowa tight end Austin Wheatley adds depth to that position, something that might prove valuable given Cam Cleeland’s injury-prone career.

Southern Cal’s Chad Morton could take over for Eddie Kennison in the return game, an area that was sorely lacking last season.

The Saints then turned an eye to the future, drafting West Virginia quarterback Marc Bulger in the fifth round. Bulger could possibly be adevelopmental project, one that could have benefits in the future. Thedrafting of Purdue cornerback Mike Hawthorne in the sixth round fills a need. Southern Miss wide receiver Sherrod Gideon adds depth at bothreceiver and in the return game. And the Saints might have gotten theirlong snapper in the seventh round in Ohio State’s Kevin Houser.

Yes, it would have been nice if the Saints could have filled some of their many other holes. Another defensive back or a middle linebacker wouldhave been nice. So would have a safety or an outside linebacker. Justimagine if the Saints had had that second overall pick and would have been in the position to grab Lavar Arrington. But without picks in the first andthird rounds, the Saints could only watch as the best at those positions quickly went off the boards. Grabbing for those positions by the time theypicked would have been a reach and without a glut of selections, this was one franchise that could ill afford to do that.

How this draft will pan out is anybody’s guess right now. If anything canbe learned from it is how valuable draft picks are. If a team is one or twoplayers away from being a playoff contender, it is better to try to go the free agency route than to mortgage the future. It was proven that theSaints were not such a team last season and all the Williams trade did was push the team’s timetable for being one back. Mueller and Haslett dida good job with a short hand. It will be interesting to see what happensover the next couple of years when they can leave the pier with the rest of the competitors.

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