Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
METAIRIE – Perhaps the raging argument of Jimmy Graham being considered a tight end or a wide receiver would have never started had New Orleans had more wide receivers playing like wide receivers last season.
That could happen this season as the Saints selected exceptionally fast 5-foot-10 Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick of the first round in the 2014 draft after trading up from No. 27 with Arizona and giving the Cardinals a third round pick. Cooks missed mini-camp last week because he was in classes at Oregon State on the quarter system. He will be practicing in the Saints’ volunteer workouts in the coming week.
The Saints also have speedy 6-1 wide receiver Joe Morgan, an undrafted free agent in 2011, back after he missed all of 2013 with a knee injury. And there is the blossoming, versatile, 6-0 Kenny Stills, a fifth round pick in 2013 who led Saints wideouts in 2013 with five touchdowns and averaged 20 yards a catch.
“There are some new players,” Saints coach Sean Payton said during mini-camp last week. “There will be some good competition here.”
Last season, only one wideout was in the top four in receiving for the Saints – eight-year veteran Marques Colston in third with 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns. Slowed by a nagging foot injury, Colston had his fewest catches since 2009 and fewest touchdowns since 2008. He also saw his average yards per catch – 12.6 - drop for the second straight year. The next wideout on the Saints’ 2013 chart was possession receiver Lance Moore in fifth with 37 catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns. He was not re-signed by the Saints after the season and is now with Pittsburgh.
Graham’s grievance hearing begins Tuesday with the NFL over his position designation. The Saints made the four-year superstar a franchise player following last season when Graham became a free agent. As a franchise player, Graham will get an average of the top five salaries at the position unless the Saints come up with another deal by July 15. For a tight end that would be $7 million. For a wide receiver that would be $12 million. Hence the argument as the 6-7 Graham lined up where wide receivers usually do 67 percent of the time last season.
Graham also led the Saints last season in catches with 86, in yards with 1,215 and in touchdowns with 16. He led the team in catches in 2012 with 85 as well. In 2011, the former basketball player at Miami had one of the best seasons for a tight end in NFL history with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.
When Seattle and other teams shut down Graham significantly late last season by putting their top cornerbacks on him instead of safeties, slot corners and linebackers, the Saints often had no other option. The team missed the deep threat of veteran Devery Henderson, who was not signed after the ‘12 season. Morgan was expected to replace Henderson before the injury. Stills stretched the field, but he was sixth on the team in receptions with 32.
“Kenny is someone that after looking at him last year, we have to find a way to get him the ball more,” Payton said. “He can play more than one position. He’s pretty versatile. He can play inside. He has really good outside speed. His ability to stretch the field and use his hips to get in and out of cuts is something that has helped him.”
Also stretching the field is the 6-2 Robert Meachem, a first round pick by the Saints in 2007 who returned to New Orleans in 2013 after spending 2012 with San Diego. He led the Saints with 20.3 yards a catch last year, but he was seventh in reception with 16 for 324 yards and two touchdowns.
“We’ve had veteran guys each year whether it’s Devery or Lance,” Payton said. “Guys that have played an awful lot that we’re going to have to replace and get snaps from somewhere else. We have a lot of good candidates.”
Included in that group is 6-4 wide receiver Nick Toon, a fourth round pick in 2012 who missed all of that season with a foot injury and managed only four catches for 68 yards last season.
“I would expect him to play a bigger role for this season. His progress is important to us. With the loss of a number of players, particularly Lance, I think you’ll see more snaps for him and more opportunities,” Payton said.
“I think he has come along extremely well,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Toon. “I’ve been very impressed with some of the things I’ve seen from him out here. He’s another big target who can run well. He transitions very well for a big guy. You watch the way he catches the ball sometimes, and it’s so confident. He goes after it and goes after it, and plucks it. I think he can have big contributions on this team.”
There is also the 5-8 Charles Hawkins, a speedster who signed late last season after leading Arizona in the 2013 preseason with 11 catches for 209 yards after playing at Southern.
“He can separate quickly,” Payton said.
There clearly could be much more to throw at – enough to excite a backup quarterback.
“Look, we’re stacked at receiver – a lot of talent,” Luke McCown said. “Marques is as good and as healthy as he’s ever been. Kenny Stills is playing every receiver position. Nick Toon has really come on in this camp and made a lot of plays. Meach is as fast as he’s been. And the abilities of all these guys complement each other and allow them to play several positions in different packages. That’s what’s exciting – to be able to call up several personnel groups and have these guys switch positions and run the same routes. Those combinations make a quarterback excited.”
There are only so many footballs, though.
“It’s extremely competitive with the receiver position right now with a lot of guys fighting for spots,” Brees said.