It isn't often that a seventh-round draft selection makes much of a stir around the NFL. Yet the New Orleans Saints and head coach Sean Payton were willing to spend much of their Saturday, when other teams were drafting rounds four through seven, on a "project" to steal Mississippi State QB Tommy Stevens away from the division-rival Carolina Panthers.
Stevens played at both Mississippi State and Penn State, where he built up a reputation as a Taysom Hill-type player, meaning he could play quarterback or produce as an offensive weapon.
The theft began when the Saints learned that Stevens had agreed to sign with Carolina if he went undrafted. Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady had previously worked with Stevens as a graduate assistant at Penn State, and so Brady and Carolina had a deal in place.
"It became a project," Payton said. The Saints first attempted to lure Stevens in by matching the Panthers' offer of a $15,000 signing bonus and guaranteeing $30,000 of Stevens' contract. They then upped the ante by guaranteeing $144,000 of the contract.
Stevens wanted to honor his agreement with the Panthers, so he wasn't persuaded.
Yet Payton wasn't going to stop there. Having Hill on his roster, Payton knows the importance of a player who can fill that role, and he wasn't ready to let a division rival get their hands on a similar player.
"There's no way I was going to lose this kid," Payton said. "We know the role. We invented the role."
Payton's Seventh-Round Heist
Realizing that outbidding the Panthers in an undrafted free agency scenario would fail, Payton and the Saints decided they would have to spend a draft pick to get their guy. But there was a problem: after trading up to draft tight end Adam Trautman in the third, New Orleans didn't have another pick in the draft.
Part of their empty draft purse allowed the Saints to focus on identifying players they wanted to recruit as undrafted free agents, which pointed them toward Stevens. But now they had to make a move to get him.
That move occurred when New Orleans traded away their 2021 sixth-round pick for Houston's seventh-round pick this year. The Saints then took Stevens with the 240th overall pick.
It was a player heist Payton reveled in, and he celebrated with a pair of text messages.
To Stevens and his agent, Buddy Baker, Payton sent, "I'm tired of asking. Now, I'm taking." To Brady, Payton sent, "Not so fast."
Speaking later about Stevens' prior agreement with the Panthers, Payton said, "You had given your word, and I respect that. But we weren't going to lose you. You were going to become a Saint."
The Saints locked up Hill through 2021 with a new deal earlier this month, and now they have a younger version of the player in the form of Stevens.
Saints Gearing Up For Super Bowl Run
The 2020 NFL Draft was a brief one for the Saints, at least on paper. New Orleans took center Cesar Ruiz in the first round, linebacker Zach Baun in the third round, then traded up for Trautman, and traded back into the draft to snag Stevens.
With that draft class, the Saints now have their sights set on another Super Bowl appearance, and they have a great shot at getting there.
Led by quarterback Drew Brees and an offense that ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring last year with 28.5 points per game, New Orleans will look to replicate the success that earned them a 13-3 record a season ago.
For now, the Saints own the fourth-best odds to win the Super Bowl at +1200. The only other NFC team they trail behind is San Francisco, who owns odds of +900 to win it all. The two favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy are the Chiefs (+650) and Ravens (+700).