Deon Yelder

Associated Press

Nearly all the experts believed the New Orleans Saints would target a tight end in April's draft.

For months, the mock drafts kept predicting the position to New Orleans. An obvious need existed, and the 2018 draft class was deep at tight end, full of big names like Hayden Hurst and Mike Gesicki and Dallas Goedert. 

New Orleans ended up passing on the position through seven rounds of the draft. Need and name never matched up with the way the board looked in the Saints' war room. 

The Saints waited to strike until the frenzied minutes after the draft, offering $90,000 in guaranteed money to win a whirlwind sweepstakes for Western Kentucky's Deon Yelder, whose name might not carry as much recognition as the rest of the tight ends in his class but represents an impressive talent just coming into his own. 

"I felt like I belonged with those guys," Yelder said. "They have more years, but talent-wise, I feel like we’re equal. We’re neck and neck. I feel like I’ve got things to work on, but who doesn’t?"

Yelder has always been a little overlooked. A basketball player who decided not to play football until his junior year at Southern High in Louisville, Ky. — in part, Yelder said, because he didn't think the football program was good enough, an idea he now thinks was ridiculous — Yelder arrived at Western Kentucky as a preferred walk-on. 

He looked only a little like the player he'd become. 

Yelder started out at Western Kentucky as a wide receiver, grew into a tight end and found himself stuck behind players like Tyler Higbee and George Fant, who are both in the NFL now. 

When Ryan Mahaffey took over as tight ends coach under new Hilltoppers coach Mike Sanford last season, Yelder was headed into his senior season without a single catch to his name. He was one of only two tight ends on the roster.

Mahaffey, who spent a couple of seasons as a fullback in the NFL, instantly saw the potential.

"Right from the moment we went out to winter workouts and had the chance to see him run and move around in space, and see the way that he worked, I thought he had a great chance," Mahaffey said. "You could see he had the ability, you could see he had the movement skills, and more importantly, you saw he was committed to making himself a better player."

Yelder was also walking into an offense perfectly suited for him. Sanford likes to use sets with two tight ends, and Western Kentucky had Mike White, a future fifth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.

Mahaffey saw a breakout coming. A 6-foot-4, 255-pound athlete who can run, Yelder had the tools. More importantly, he had the mentality. 

"I’m still very impressed by Deon’s devotion to getting better each and every single day, considering where he started and the path he took to become a starter at Western Kentucky," Mahaffey said. "But I’m not surprised by the production he had, because you could see it in practice."

Yelder, unheard of by almost anybody outside of Western Kentucky's program at the start of the season, exploded for 52 catches, 688 yards and seven touchdowns, and he scored another touchdown on the ground. 

A little-known prospect at the start of the draft process because of his late start, Yelder played well enough at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl to earn a late invite to the Senior Bowl when some of those bigger names pulled out of the game. 

"I just wanted the opportunity," Yelder said. "That’s all I’ve ever asked for, is an opportunity to go forward and do what I do."

On the third day of the draft, Yelder found himself caught between the disappointment of not being drafted and exhilaration at the flood of calls that came in to his agent as soon as the draft ended. 

Yelder started consulting Mahaffey. Tight end and coach had grown close over the course of the season, and given Mahaffey's NFL experience, Yelder wanted to know what his college coach thought about which team he should pick. 

Mahaffey's mind immediately went to Dan Campbell, a coach he'd admired during his days with the Miami Dolphins.

"I was playing fullback at the time, I spent more of my time with the running backs, but I knew that he had a great rapport with his players," Mahaffey said. "I know that he was a great fundamental coach who built really strong relationships with his players, that he was going to be extremely honest about how Deon needed to improve his game, and he also has the insight of playing that position for a very long time in the NFL."

New Orleans also ponied up a large guarantee for an undrafted free agent, and the combination of coach and cash dropped Yelder in New Orleans. 

The Saints liked what they saw out of Yelder's breakout season.

"He’s big and he can run," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We think he catches the ball well. We have to work and get up to speed a little bit in the blocking."

Yelder knows he must become a better blocker. A lack of playing time probably contributed to his shortcomings, but he wants to be a complete player. 

"Coach Campbell’s a great coach," Yelder said. "He can help me develop my game and become a true tight end, a true Y tight end, an all-around tight end who can catch and block."

The good news is he has the most important part. 

Yelder likes to hit.

“He’s very aggressive, shows the ability to play with great leverage and hand placement," Mahaffey said. "He’s flashed the ability to be a dominant in-line blocker."

Yelder might be in the perfect spot to develop. Besides Campbell, he also joins a tight end room that includes veterans Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill, both talented two-way players at the position. 

If he can earn a spot on the roster, Yelder will have a chance to prove he belongs with the bigger names in his class. 

"Deon is just scratching the potential of what he can become,' Mahaffey said. "I think Deon’s best ball is well in front of him. I think the New Orleans Saints got an absolute steal."

Wouldn't be the first time the Saints found a talented player after the draft had ended.

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.