Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman, small-school stud RB Timothy Flanders early Saints undrafted free agency headliners

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

During late Saturday and throughout Sunday, it appeared more than 20 players who were either rookies not chosen in the 2014 draft or were beyond their first year out of school but unsigned had at least agreed to either free agent or tryout deals with the Saints, via league sources and credible Twitter reports.

While among them were guys with local ties, a few names stood out to me: Rutgers wide receiver Brandon Coleman, center Matt Armstrong from Grand Valley State and Sam Houston State running back Timothy Flanders.

Rutgers University confirmed its towering 6-foot-6, 220-pound wide receiver Brandon Coleman agreed to a deal with the Saints. Coleman tied a school record for touchdown receptions with 20, and he had 92 grabs for 1,743 yards in 26 starts.

As for Armstrong, he’s notable because of Grand Valley State alum Tim Lelito, the second-year offensive lineman who started two games at guard as an undrafted rookie in 2013. After Brian de la Puente — the Saints’ starter at center since 2011 — left in free agency for Chicago in April, the Saints repeatedly named Lelito as someone who would compete for that particular vacancy this preseason.

They assured that player would be either an incoming rookie or a veteran free agent. The Saints didn’t draft anybody at the position because they didn’t consider that spot very deep in the draft.

And coach Sean Payton refused to comment on what kind of communication the team may be having with free-agent center Jonathan Goodwin (a former Saint who went to the Pro Bowl the year New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV and has been in San Francisco the past three seasons).

But Lelito’s first challenger became known Saturday, when Armstrong’s agent James Ivler confirmed during a brief phone conversation that his client “is a Saint.” Armstrong is an ex-teammate of Lelito’s at Grand Valley State and owns the most recent Rimington Trophy given out to the best center in the Football Championship Subdivision (previously known as Division I-AA).

And lastly, there’s Flanders, who announced his agreement with the Saints via Twitter. Dimunitive at 5-foot-9 and 207 pounds, Flanders is the all-time leading rusher in the history of the Southland Conference, which is in the FCS.

The All-American had 5,664 ground yards and 66 touchdowns from 2010 to 2013 after transferring to Sam Houston State from Kansas State, where he red-shirted his freshman year.

At the scouting combine in Indianapolis, Flanders said he met with New Orleans running backs coach Dan Roushar and grew up in Oklahoma as a Saints fan. He also had a pre-draft visit with the Saints.

Regardless, aside from Armstrong (@Strongarm56 on Twitter), Flanders (@TFlanders405) and Coleman, others who have either taken free agent deals or have been tapped to try out at this weekend’s upcoming rookie minicamp include:

-Ryan Boykin, RB, Ohio [via his Twitter] (@RyanBoykin20)

-Sergio Castillo, Kicker, West Texas A&M [media reports]

-Jerome Cunningham, Tight end, South Connecticut State (@Coco_Loco86) [his school confirmed]

-Brian Dixon, Cornerback, Northwest Missouri State (@BrianDixon_2) [via his Twitter]

-Kasim Edebali, Defensive end, Boston College (@TheDreamKasim) [his school confirmed]

-Spencer Hadley, Outside linebacker, BYU [source confirmed]

-Je’Ron Hamm, Wide receiver, Louisiana-Monroe (@j_hamm86) [his school confirmed]

-Spencer Harris, Wide receiver, Illinois [via coach's Twitter]

-Cqulin Hubert, Linebacker, Southeastern Louisiana (CqulinHubert51) [via his Twitter]

-John Hubert, Running back, Kansas State (via his Twitter)

-Steve Hull, Wide receiver, Illinois [via coach's Twitter]

-Shawn Jackson, Linebacker, Tulsa [via media reports on Twitter]

-Logan Kilgore**, Quarterback, Middle Tennessee State (@logankilgore) [via his Twitter]

-Seantavius Jones, Wide receiver, Valdosta State (@Stretch_did_dat) [league source]

-Ryan McGrath, right tackle, Ohio University

-Brandon McCray, Defensive end, Louisiana-Lafayette [via media reports]

-TraShaun Nixon, Linebacker, New Mexico State (@TNiX_02) [via his Twitter]

-Micajah Reynolds**, Defensive lineman, Michigan State (@CallMeCaj60) [via his Twitter]

-Derrick Strozier, Cornerback, Tulane (@D_Stro13) [via his Twitter]

-George Uko, defensive tackle, Southern California [via his agency]

-Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Defensive end, Colorado [via media reports]

-Lawrence Virgil, Defensive end, Valdosta State [school confirmed]

-Pierre Warren, Safety, Jacksonville State [school confirmed]

-Luke Wollet, Safety, Kent State [local media reports]

-Ty Zimmerman, Safety, Kansas State [media reports]

Note that any agreed to deals can fall apart for any number of reasons. None of these are official until the Saints release an announcement.

Golic Jr. signs

On another note, guard Mike Golic Jr. — who was undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2013 — has agreed to a deal with the Saints, he said on Twitter. It’s for two years, ESPN reported.

Golic spent last summer with the Pittsburgh Steelers but didn’t make the team. His father co-hosts ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning with Mike Greenberg.

How Julio Jones, Lavonte David and Cam Newton fit into Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s fascinating narrative

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste (16) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass from Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson which bounced off of  Minnesota's Devin Crawford-Tufts (80), in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Jean-Baptiste was the Saints' second-round draft selection on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (16) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass from Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson which bounced off of Minnesota’s Devin Crawford-Tufts (80), in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Jean-Baptiste was the Saints’ second-round draft selection on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

Back when he had first started playing cornerback at Nebraska in 2011, Stanley Jean-Baptiste admitted he’d been keeping a list for years.

On it were the names of a few lionized wide receivers. One of them was A.J. Green, a first-round pick out of Georgia for Cincinnati in 2011 who’s been invited to three Pro Bowls by now.

Another was Justin Blackmon, a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner at Oklahoma State who was taken in the first round of the 2012 draft by Jacksonville and had caught 93 passes for 1,280 yards and six touchdowns for the Jaguars until he was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy midway through last season.

And a third name will be of particular interest to fans of the Saints, who chose the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Jean-Baptiste in the second round of the 2014 draft on Friday.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) just misses catching a TD pass as New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) defends in the second half of the Saints' 31-27 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome over Atlanta in 2012.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS — Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) just misses catching a TD pass as New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) defends in the second half of the Saints’ 31-27 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome over Atlanta in 2012.

How about Julio Jones, the 2011 first-round pick out of Alabama who’s been to one Pro Bowl and has caught 174 balls for 2,737 yards and 20 touchdowns?

Jean-Baptiste kept such names handy because he was committed to eclipsing them sooner or later, he told the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, which noted the detail in a story published in October 2011.

“They’re getting everything they wanted, everything they worked for,” Jean-Baptiste was quoted as saying. “They’re getting their names out there. And I’ve been just watching it.”

After being selected by New Orleans, Jean-Baptiste alluded to the unconventional route he had taken to the NFL while speaking to the local media via conference call.

Jean-Baptiste, from Miami, said he didn’t have the necessary test scores to immediately play in the NCAA. So his post-high school career began as a receiver at North Carolina Tech Preparatory Christian Academy, which purports to let college football hopefuls who pay tuition work on their academic qualifications while playing a strange array of opponents: preps, junior colleges, club squads, and junior varsity teams made up of lower-division NCAA as well as NAIA programs.

Jean-Baptiste told the Omaha World-Herald that North Carolina Tech assured him he didn’t have to go to class as long as he played for the institution. But all he heard was silence on the college-scholarships front as he caught 36 passes for 580 yards, and he figured “something was wrong” with what had been promised to him (North Carolina Tech would later be investigated by the NCAA in 2009).

Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David in 2013.

Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David in 2013.

So Jean-Baptiste’s high school coach suggested he check out Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. A linebacker named Lavonte David was excelling out there, Jean-Baptiste was told, the Omaha World-Herald story said.

Jean-Baptiste headed to Fort Scott in 2009. He red-shirted, and David led Fort Scott to the Junior College National Championship Game. For the record, Fort Scott dropped the game to a Blinn College team spearheaded by a quarterback named Cam Newton, who some four years later would help the Carolina Panthers capture an NFC South title.

Nonetheless, a Nebraska recruiter who went to Fort Scott for work spotted Jean-Baptiste and swayed him to transfer to Lincoln. The Omaha World-Herald said Jean-Baptiste was guaranteed an immediate roster spot.

Jean-Baptiste became a Cornhusker alongside a familiar face from Fort Scott: David, who’s now getting ready for a third season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Jean-Baptiste was a redshirt, scout-team receiver in 2010 before coach Bo Pelini successfully asked him to move to cornerback. His career in Lincoln culminated with a 2013 campaign in which he topped the Cornhuskers with 12 pass break-ups and tied for the team lead with four interceptions, earning him Second-Team All-Big 10 honors.

On Friday, Jean-Baptiste attributed much of his success with Nebraska to having played wideout. He developed ball skills that served him well when he hopped on defense and found he could quickly read formations and opposing receivers’ tendencies.

After standing out at the scouting combine and Senior Bowl as well as visiting the Saints in April, Jean-Baptiste must now ready himself to navigate a rookie campaign that has the potential to be dramatic for him.

The Saints are scheduled to meet Julio Jones and Lavonte David each twice. And they’re set to cross paths with A.J. Green once as Jean-Baptiste’s chance to surge past the names on his list gets ever nearer.

“I was just waiting for a team to select me,” the 24-year-old Jean-Baptiste said Friday. “And I’m glad it was the Saints.”

*
Correction: This post misidentified the name of the Omaha World-Herald newspaper and has been corrected.

Aware of Sherman comparisons, Jean-Baptiste wants chance to be own person with Saints

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste (16) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass from Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson which bounced off of  Minnesota's Devin Crawford-Tufts (80), in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Jean-Baptiste was the Saints' second-round draft selection on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (16) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass from Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson which bounced off of Minnesota’s Devin Crawford-Tufts (80), in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Jean-Baptiste was the Saints’ second-round draft selection on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

After the Saints chose him in the second round of the draft Friday, Stanley Jean-Baptiste admitted that his standing among his fellow prospects was boosted by some of his similarities with Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, a two-time All-Pro who helped Seattle win a Super Bowl in February.

Yet he hopes that’s not the only reason he’s wanted in New Orleans.

“I was aware of it, everyone comparing me to Richard Sherman,” Jean-Baptiste said Friday after being picked. “I heard all the rumors (and) all the details; I was paying attention to everything that they were saying.

“I think it had a big part to play in it, but at the end of the day hopefully the Saints took me for the person I am and the skill sets I bring.”

Some similarities with Sherman are undeniable. Though he didn’t go to Stanford like Sherman, Jean-Baptiste did start out playing the same previous position the Seattle star did: wide receiver.

He caught 36 passes for 580 yards at North Carolina Tech Christian Academy in 2008. After attending a community college in Kansas in 2009, Jean-Baptiste moved on to Nebraska the following year and red-shirted as a scout-team receiver.

He switched to defensive back in 2011, and his career culminated with a 2013 campaign in which he topped the Cornhuskers with 12 pass break-ups and tied for the team lead with four interceptions, earning him Second-Team All-Big 10 honors.

As Sherman has said before, Jean-Baptiste said playing wideout helped him with the ball skills he used to get his interceptions and pass break-ups. He found it easy to read formations and receivers’ tendencies when he hopped on the other side of the ball.

Though he’s heavier than Sherman at 218 pounds, their heights are about the same at approximately 6 feet, 3 inches.

But Jean-Baptiste on Friday wisely avoided portraying himself as a mirror-image of Sherman, whose 20 interceptions and 61 pass deflections are the most since he entered the NFL in 2011.

Jean-Baptiste knows he’ll be competing for an opportunity to start opposite entrenched No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis, but the auditions for that spot will be crowded.

Also in the mix will be Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler whose 53 career interceptions are the third-most among active NFL players. There’s cornerback Corey White, who started for much of last year and helped the Saints win two playoff games after the now-released Jabari Greer sustained a season-ending knee injury in November.

And there’s Patrick Robinson, the Saints’ 2010 first-round pick who missed virtually all of the ’13 campaign with a knee injury.

Nonetheless, listening to Saints coach Sean Payton speak on Friday, it seemed he strongly believed Jean-Baptiste had the qualities to mount a viable challenge to start in New Orleans, and perhaps even eventually blossom into a player who resembles the Seahawk the former Cornhusker wasn’t entirely comfortable being likened to on Friday.

Payton said: “I would … say (Jean-Baptiste’s) ball skills are something that are important because I know, offensively, if we feel like we’re playing someone who doesn’t have those ball skills, there’s really not a negative to throw in that direction: it’s complete, it’s incomplete, or it’s pass interference.

“It’s when there’s a corner that can turn around and catch a football that really makes you target and locate your passes. It makes you very leery of just indiscriminately throwing it out there. He’s someone who has those.”