Colts, Saints took different routes to building Super Bowl rosters

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Boasting explosive offenses, dynamic quarterbacks and defenses that are just good enough, Super Bowl combatants Indianapolis and New Orleans are near mirror images of each other. That is, until they look in the mirror.

The Colts are the standard bearers in drafting players and finding those who have been overlooked to fit their schemes. They develop players who aren't ready, and they don't use free agency or trades to significantly alter their roster. And even though there was a change at head coach from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell, just about everything has stayed the same for a franchise that has spoiled itself with success.

The Saints, well, there really was no formula in building this highly talented roster. There are high draft picks such as Reggie Bush and Sedrick Ellis, but there's also an abundance of other teams' discards (Drew Brees, Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper and Jeremy Shockey, to name a few) and guys nobody wanted at all (Pierre Thomas, Garrett Hartley).

"Our philosophy is that we don't care how you got here, we don't care what your path was, once you're in the building, we're going to play the best guys and go by what we see," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "We've got them from all walks. I don't think we're a group of mutts. More like a group of greyhounds."

Added Colts vice president and general manager Chris Polian: "You ask 32 different people and you'll probably get some commonality, but there probably are 32 different philosophies on roster building. When you get into the smaller parts of roster building, the most important thing is you pick one way of doing it, establish your core beliefs and let those be your guiding factors as you move forward. Everybody does it a different way. Out of the continuity we've had, we've been fortunate that we've been able to choose a path for this team that works for us."

That path has led to this heading into Super Bowl XLIV: Of the Colts' 22 starting position players, all but nine were drafted by the team. Of those nine, seven were signed as undrafted rookies or picked up on waivers after other teams signed them as undrafted rookies and quickly released them. Only defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir played for other teams, the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers, respectively, before signing with the Colts as free agents.

The Colts' biggest free-agent signing the past few years? Kicker Adam Vinatieri, who, because of injuries this season, is backing up street free-agent signee Matt Stover.

Led by team president Bill Polian, Chris' father, the Colts' staff has a tried and true formula that has bred constant success.

"With our continuity, everybody understands what our philosophy is and how the roster is going to be built," Chris Polian said. "We know what the limitations are and what the strengths and weaknesses are in terms of building rosters. Everybody -- including the players -- is accepting of that and takes responsibility of getting guys going, getting guys indoctrinated in our ways and how we do things to be productive NFL players."

Although the Colts have been strong in finding undrafted talent and selection well in the later rounds -- safety Antoine Bethea (sixth) and wide receiver Pierre Garcon (sixth), for example -- their star players, the guys who hold others to a high standard, are the first-round draft picks who have delivered to expectations.

Everything starts with quarterback Peyton Manning, the first overall pick in 1998. The majority of the other top offensive skill-position players -- running back Joseph Addai, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark -- were first-rounders. Defensive end Dwight Freeney is the only first-round starter on defense, hence the tilted balance of the Colts' strength toward offense.

While the Saints have their share of first-round picks, most of their key players were selected outside of the first round or acquired through trades or free agency.

Of the skill players in New Orleans' NFL-best offense, only tight end Shockey was drafted in the first round, and that was by the New York Giants. The Saints acquired him before the 2008 season in a trade.

Quarterback Brees was a second-round selection by the San Diego Chargers, who let him walk after the 2005 season after he suffered a shoulder injury and kept the seat warm for Philip Rivers. Starting tailback Thomas was undrafted out of Illinois, even though he started ahead of Pittsburgh Steelers tailback and first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall in college. Wide receiver Marques Colston was a seventh-round selection, and fellow wideout Devery Henderson was chosen in the second round.

Defensively, New Orleans' three starting linebackers -- Vilma, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle and -- were brought in through trades or as veteran free agents, and defensive backs Sharper and Jabari Greer, the difference makers of the opportunistic secondary, were 2009 free-agent pickups who no one imagined would pan out like they have. Even Hartley, who nailed the game-winning field goal to elevate the Saints over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, was signed as a street free agent after being let go by the Denver Broncos before the 2008 season.

The Saints' recent first-round picks, Bush, wide receiver Robert Meachem, Ellis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, have shown flashes, but all are still evolving and none has consistently started, although all but Jenkins are huge parts of the rotation.

"We've got guys who were always thought of as thoroughbreds to go along with guys that nobody else wanted," Loomis said. "You always have an affinity for guys who traveled the hard route. Pierre Thomas doesn't get drafted, it's a blow to your ego and everything else, yet he comes in here, busts his butt, is a good special teams player, and he basically beats out Antonio Pittman, who we drafted in the fourth round. We took a college free agent over a draft pick because we want the best guys on the field.

"It probably goes on a case-by-case basis, but whenever you have somebody who comes through adversity and they hit another stretch of tough times, they have that experience of reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, and every game, you're going to have that, and there will be periods of adversity every season. These guys know how to push through that, and we've got the type of guys who will push through that with them."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.