WR Lance Moore has emerged as the Saints' top receiving threat this season
First-round picks and superstars from big-time college programs get the most attention on draft day, but there are stories like that of New Orleans Saints wide receiver Lance Moore all over the NFL. Stories, that is, of undrafted or unheralded players scratching and clawing their way into the league and eventually proving they can excel at the highest level despite their humble beginnings.
It's all about getting your opportunity and taking advantage of it.
Moore has certainly done that in his third season in the NFL. After originally joining the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2005, Moore spent much of the next two seasons on New Orleans' practice squad before finally getting an extended call to the active roster in 2007.
He proved to be an active contributor on special teams, playing in all 16 games, and he also caught 32 passes for 302 yards and two scores, but 2008 has proven to be Moore's true breakout season.
In just 11 games, six of which he has started, Moore has easily shattered his previous career highs, catching 57 passes for 724 yards and seven touchdowns, totals that lead the team in each category.
From undrafted free agent out of Toledo to the leading receiver on the No. 1 offense in the NFL – unbelievable, isn't it?
"Well it has been a long road, many ups and many downs," Moore said. "I think it is just a credit to continuing to work. That was my attitude, and as long as I worked as hard as I could, I couldn't say at least I didn't try. Working hard and making plays each and every day in practice started to pay off with the coaches believing in me, and wanting to throw me the ball on weekends.
"I always felt like I was capable and in my mind, it was just a matter of time until I got that real opportunity to show myself. Now is pretty much the time where I have been able to do that, and be making plays for my team. The coaches have the confidence in me, and I have the confidence in everybody else, so this feels good. There is still a long way to go, but I am enjoying myself this season."
So, maybe not so unbelievable when one examines the hard work it took for Moore to get where he is. Again, such stories dot the NFL landscape; there are certainly several in Tampa, such as starting left tackle Donald Penn and recently-injured starting running back Earnest Graham. One recent example is rookie running back Clifton Smith, the Bucs' newfound sparkplug in the return game.
In fact, when discussing his leading receiver, Saints Head Coach Sean Payton actually drew a comparison to Smith.
"He's one of those guys that, like Clifton, started on first base, not third base," Payton said of Moore. "He was a free agent from Toledo, he played over in Europe. He's smart. He's a guy that's got very reliable and dependable hands. He knows exactly what to do on each play and I think he's got obviously a lot of confidence behind him with Drew [Brees]. That's something he's earned during the last two-and-a-half years here."
Payton also compared Moore to another Buccaneer whom he considers to be cut from the same cloth, although this one was actually a first-round draft pick some years ago.
"[Moore] is a great worker and very detailed in what he does. There's some similarities, having coached Ike Hilliard. When I had Ike in New York, Ike has those same characteristics in that he's very intelligent, he's very reliable and understands what you want from him each week. To function offensively, you need that."
Moore obviously appreciates the praise from his head coach, but simply having one good year after climbing from the bottom isn't enough. There has to be continued improvement for the story to continue, and Moore feels his best is yet to come.
"I definitely think I have grown," Moore said. "In years past, I have had minimal roles on offense, but this year I feel like I am really out there, I feel like I belong in this offense, and I feel like they have to give me the ball because I am making so many plays. I better continue to do that because it is going to get harder and harder as teams key in on me a little bit more, but thankfully for us, we have got a bunch of guys that are able to make plays as well, so I think that is what makes this offense as good as it is."
Speaking of the New Orleans offense, could there be a better place for a young wide receiver to thrive? With superstar quarterback Drew Brees flinging the ball all over the place for the league's No. 1-ranked pass offense, it has been a dream come true for Moore.
"It is awesome because you know that Coach Payton is going to throw the ball, and we have a quarterback that is second to none right now," Moore said. "Right now he is playing exceptionally well, and he is going to get the ball to the right person. He makes it really easy for us to just go out and play because we know that he is going to be on-point with his assignments and with the way he throws the ball as well as he does."
Things may be a bit more difficult this week for the Saints, however, as they prepare to go up against the Bucs and their second-ranked pass defense. Although Brees gashed the Bucs for 343 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Week 1 matchup between the two teams, Moore knows things won't necessarily be as easy this time around.
"Any time you play a team more than once in a season you are going to expect different things, especially since it has been since Week 1," Moore said. "Both teams are going to have different nuances and things like that, that they didn't do in the first week, and teams have definitely matured since then, so we will be ready to see some different looks and hopefully be able to attack them."
Sunday's contest is a critical one for both teams as they head down the stretch in a tight NFC South playoff race. If he is to experience his first taste of postseason football, Moore knows the Saints can't afford any more missteps this late in the season.
"This is the time of year to build that momentum," Moore said. "We are trying to go on a playoff run, and especially with us being last place in the division, each game becomes almost like a must-win. Having that momentum that we have, it feels good, but we have to bring that energy each and every Sunday from here on out obviously if we want to have a chance.
"We have to [bring the intensity]. It is a divisional game, it is an NFC game. It doesn't really get, for us, any bigger than this up until now. We are 6-5, not in the greatest position but if we can keep rattling off wins, who knows what is going to happen here?"