JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -Draft day 2006 brought a few instant stars and six starters to the New Orleans Saints.
Those rookies and draft-day acquisitions filled nearly every hole in the Saints' lineup, helping push the team into the NFC Championship game. Their success has left the 2007 draft class with few openings to fill.
``It was a big part of our success as a team a year ago,'' coach Sean Payton said. ``When you're able to draft a class like that and have those guys come in and start, that is something that obviously gives you an edge and a big plus. You hope each year you are finding guys in the draft that can help you.''
There are several players from this year's draft that can help. But none stands out as the Saints closed training camp Wednesday in Jackson.
Last year Reggie Bush, the heralded No. 2 overall pick out of Southern California, was expected to make an impact, and three other picks took advantage of weaknesses on a team that had been 3-13 in 2005 to earn starting roles.
At this time last year, strong safety Roman Harper, guard Jahri Evans and wide receiver Marques Colston were bulling their way into the lineup.
New Orleans helped itself further on draft day with trades that brought in two more starters - center Jeff Faine and noseguard Hollis Thomas. The Saints also picked up their starting punter, Steve Weatherford, as a rookie free agent signing.
``Really, those guys were part of our draft,'' general manager Mickey Loomis said. ``When you factor those guys in, it becomes really extraordinary.''
Bush finished with 1,523 total yards and nine touchdowns. Colston, picked 252nd out of Hofstra, was second in offensive rookie of the year voting after 70 catches, 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns in a little more than 13 games.
Harper, taken in the second round out of Alabama, had 32 tackles through five games as a starter before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury. And Evans, a fourth-round pick out of Bloomsburg, started every game.
``A year ago we didn't have a right guard, so Jahri Evans got the opportunity to step in and play,'' Loomis said. ``This year we have five solid starters on the offensive line, so even if one of these young guys is as good as Jahri Evans there's not an opportunity to play because we've got veteran players that have proven themselves in this league playing in those spots.''
Offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod is in that situation. Payton singled him out for praise early in training camp as a player that looks for contact. But he's currently third on the depth chart behind All-Pro Jammal Brown and 2006 seventh-round draft pick Zach Strief at left tackle.
Bushrod, a fourth-round pick out of Towson University, said he is concentrating on finding a role with the team.
``I just try to come out every day and get better,'' Bushrod said. ``Some days that goes well for me, some days it doesn't.''
Also looking for roles at deep positions are first-round pick Robert Meachem; Usama Young, a cornerback taken in the second round out of Kent; and fourth-round pick Antonio Pittman, who is behind Deuce McAllister and Bush on the depth chart.
Meachem, drafted out of Tennessee as a potential replacement for receiver Joe Horn, was the focus of his coaches' ire early in camp.
He has not made a significant move up the depth chart since, even with starter Devery Henderson sidelined by injury. Waiver-wire pickup Terrence Copper worked with the first team Wednesday.
Meachem has been hampered by a knee injury and blisters on his feet, but said he has improved his route-running skills, has better hands and reads coverage with more ease now. That showed in last week's preseason game against Buffalo when he caught a difficult touchdown pass and had another catch go for 18 yards on third down.
Payton complimented him after the touchdown, but Meachem said he has much more work to do to be a factor.
``I came a long way, but I've still got a lot more improvement to do,'' he said. ``If you want to be known as a great receiver or great at your position by the time you leave the game you've got to keep working.''
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