FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The overlooked, the underrated and the outright rejected have somehow landed in this Super Bowl — some with starring roles, too.
The New Orleans Saints wouldn't be competitive, let alone NFC champions and in their first Super Bowl, without a number of players who fit those categories. The list starts with quarterback Drew Brees and includes Darren Sharper, Jonathan Vilma, Jeremy Shockey, Pierre Thomas and Marques Colston.
Same for the Colts. Indianapolis defensive starters Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt weren't drafted. Neither was Jeff Saturday, the three-time All-Pro who snaps the ball to Peyton Manning. Two other starters, guard Ryan Lilja and defensive tackle Dan Muir, were picked up on waivers. DE Raheem Brock was selected in the seventh round by the Eagles in 2002, cut and signed by Indy. Pierre Garcon, the rapidly developing wide receiver, was a sixth-round draft pick.
"You've got to take advantage of your opportunities. Nothing's given to you. You've got to take it and don't let it go," said Antoine Bethea, the Colts' starting free safety and a sixth-round pick in 2006. "Myself, Melvin Bullitt, Jacob Lacey, Jerraud Powers — I think we've all done that. And that's just the secondary, not even mentioning the guys on the front end. So whatever it is, whatever you need to do, you can't relinquish the opportunity that you're given."
Brees was all but dumped by San Diego, then shunned by the Dolphins in 2006. Sharper, set adrift by Minnesota last year, signed a one-year deal at the veteran's minimum with New Orleans. Vilma and Shockey were unwanted in New York despite some Pro Bowl seasons. Thomas wasn't drafted at all, while Colston was — 252nd overall, in the final moments of the last round in '06.
"Here we are trying to come back and find ourselves," said Brees, who lost his starting job with the Chargers to Philip Rivers in great part because he injured his right shoulder in the 2005 season finale — his last game before entering free agency. Miami showed interest in him, then backed off on medical advice. The Saints had no such reservations.
"Sean Payton gets hired. I get brought in as a free agent with Scott Fujita," Brees said. "Reggie Bush and Marques Colston get drafted. We bring in guys like Mark Simoneau and Scott Shanle. The list goes on of the guys we brought in that year as free agents.
"In a way, all of us were castaways, guys who were obviously free agents because there were plenty of teams out there that didn't want us. Yet, the New Orleans Saints wanted us and they wanted to give us an opportunity. We all used that as a rallying point to come together and accomplish something special and we did."
It's not all superstars and super stats in this Super Bowl.
The Saints' top two rushers, Thomas and Mike Bell, went undrafted. The Colts' top receiver in these playoffs, Garcon, was taken with the 205th overall pick.
"You've got to give credit to (Payton) for keeping an undrafted guy over a fourth-round pick," linebacker Shanle said, referring to how the Saints stayed with Thomas over Antonio Pittman. "Even though he was better, a lot of teams don't do that."
These teams do. They also will trade for players who have worn out their welcome or don't fit elsewhere. Shockey and Vilma are examples.
Shockey caught 371 passes and lots of flak with the Giants for his individualism, willingness to speak out, and penchant for committing penalties. When the Giants discovered in 2007 they could win with Kevin Boss after Shockey broke his leg — sidelining him for the playoff run and Super Bowl upset of New England — they shopped the moody (some say disruptive) tight end.
Payton was buying, offering a second- and fifth-round selection.
"He's a guy that last night was floating around the meeting rooms and half the team is out for dinner," Payton said, referring to Shockey. "He's looking at tape and getting ice. So I think a little bit of that is mythical. It's fun to write about."
Vilma was the 2004 defensive rookie of the year. When the Jets switched coaches in 2006 from Herm Edwards to Eric Mangini, they also installed a 3-4 defense, which limited Vilma, whose strength is his pursuit from sideline to sideline.
It was clear from early in his tenure in New York that Mangini wanted a different kind of middle linebacker, and Vilma became available in 2008 after missing nine games with a knee injury.
Again, Payton was buying, offering a fourth-rounder and a conditional pick. Mangini, perhaps believing Vilma was damaged goods, was so eager to send the player elsewhere that he accepted the trade.
"It's funny, we had similar situations," Vilma said, referring to Shockey, who was his teammate at the University of Miami. "He got hurt, I got hurt. He got traded, I got traded, and we've just been making the most of it since."