METAIRIE — After several years of veterans catching passes from Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints are preparing for an influx of youth.
The addition of 2013 fifth-round draft pick Kenny Stills from the University of Oklahoma gives the Saints three young options to ponder this summer at training camp, which could become one of the most competitive receiver position battles of the Sean Payton era.
Also on board is third-year pro Joe Morgan, whose ability to stretch defenses last season — he averaged 37.9 yards on his 10 catches — made him a favorite deep target for Brees. And don’t forget about Nick Toon, last season’s fourth-round selection who missed all of last season after his foot was surgically repaired.
Morgan’s mission is the same as last year: continue to work on his routing running, especially intermediate routes.
“You’ve seen the highlight plays, so that means all the other 31 teams have seen the highlight reel plays,” Morgan said. “They’re not going to keep letting me run up and down the field. Eventually guys are going to start playing softer coverage and play back on me. So I have to learn to find the intermediate routes. and transition in and out of my breaks.”
That leaves Lance Moore — the former undrafted free agent who teamed with fellow receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson and tight end Jimmy Graham to create one of the most formidable passing attacks in the NFL — looking at himself as the oldest of the Saints receivers. Moore is entering his ninth NFL season.
“It’s funny to look at me like the old guy,” Moore said Wednesday evening at the Second Annual Black and Gold Hoops Challenge at Rummel High School.
“But you know what? I’ve still got a lot of ball in me. Marcus and myself and Courtney Roby are doing what we can to bring the other guys along. We’ve got a pretty good group.”
Moore was one of several current and former Saints who played against local police officers, fire fighters and military members to raise awareness against crime in New Orleans.
The Saints youth movement at receiver has already made an impact. Henderson, for years the Saints’ deep threat, is not expected to re-sign. Henderson caught 22 passes last season for 316 yards and one score.
Colston endured foot issues to start the season. Still, he finished with 83 catches for 1,154 yards and 10 TDs. At times, Moore was the most consistent (65 receptions for 1,041 yards, six TDs), but even he suffered his share of dropped passes, part of a disappointing 7-9 season.
With coach Sean Payton back at Saints headquarters, his season-long Bountygate suspension served, the Saints are re-energized, Moore said.
“If guys aren’t excited to have him back and ready to work and perform at a high level this year, they’re in the wrong place,” he said. “It’s going to be a great season. It’s going to be a great offseason. I can’t wait until we get the pads back on.”
Toon, the son of former New York Jets receiver Al Toon, said he is fully healed from his injury. While most of his NFL experience has been on the sideline and in position meetings, he learned from the experience.
“That’s what last year was for me, a learning experience,” he said. “A year to get healthy, give my body a year off. Learn the offense. Get accustomed to the NFL. I’m excited to get out there and get going.”
The three younger receivers, though, will also be competing against each other.
“Competition’s always a good thing,” Toon said. “It elevates everybody’s game and brings out the best in everybody. I’m going to go out there, do what I can do and the rest is up to the coaching staff and the organization.”
Running back Pierre Thomas has one vivid memory of his first Saints rookie minicamp.
“I couldn’t breathe out here,” said Thomas, a Chicago native who played college football at Illinois. “That’s a good memory right there! Took me awhile to get used to this humidity.”
Take notes Saints rookies.