One of the most intriguing things about each NFL preseason is trying to identify that "darkhorse," that "sleeper," that "diamond in the rough" that emerges to crack the 53-man roster. And that's especially the case with the New Orleans Saints, who have earned a reputation in recent years for turning unheralded guys like Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Lance Moore and Junior Galette into core players.
This year, my pick in our annual media competition is undrafted rookie linebacker Eric Martin (yeah, everybody knows about him now, but I'm demanding credit for jumping on him first!)
But who says the diamonds in the rough have to be 22 or 23 years old?
Why can't it be a couple of 29-year-olds who are looking to crack back into the NFL after a few years out of work?
Saints linebackers Jay Richardson and Baraka Atkins both have a chance to do just that.
They were drafted one round apart in 2007 (Atkins by the Seattle Seahawks in Round 4 and Richardson by the Oakland Raiders in Round 5). Both have struggled to find a home in recent years, but both seem to have very legitimate opportunities this summer in New Orleans.
In fact, one of them will probably be in the starting lineup tonight when the Saints host the Kansas City Chiefs in the preseason opener in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, because of the slate of injuries at the outside linebacker spot this summer.
Atkins never started for the Seahawks but played in 21 games with 28 tackles and two starts for the first two years. He was waived after the preseason in 2009, then caught on for a couple weeks with the San Francisco 49ers before being released again.
Then over the past three years, Atkins has fallen into an all-too-familiar pattern of being signed in January, then released after the preseason - with the Denver Broncos in 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011 and the Dallas Cowboys in 2012 (where he also played for Ryan).
It's hard to believe that Atkins hasn't caught on anywhere, because he has definitely passed the eyeball test so far this summer. The 6-4, 265-pounder from Miami has repeatedly "flashed" as a pass rusher, with a combination of speed and strength.
"Another big, physical guy that hopefully he'll shine," said Ryan, who vouched for Atkins before he was brought in for a post-draft tryout. "He did some good things last year (in Dallas), just we were stacked at that position last year."
Atkins is definitely remaining cautiously optimistic himself after the past few years. But he appreciates the opportunity he has received - also getting some snaps with the first-string defense in the wake of injuries to guys like Victor Butler, Martez Wilson and Galette.
Atkins also has a leg up on many of his new Saints teammates since he played for Ryan last year and played in a 3-4 defense with the Steelers and Broncos, as well.
His skill set fits best as a 3-4 outside linebacker. As he joked the other day, "I've always had that 'tweener label since before it became cool."
The two veterans will definitely be among the Saints' newcomers most worth watching in tonight's game.