Against Texans, young receivers make cases for Saints’ No. 3 spot
HOUSTON — One of the big questions for the New Orleans Saints going into training camp last month was who would be in the mix to be the third wide receiver behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore.
Even without Joe Morgan in the running after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Black and Gold Scrimmage one week into camp, the Saints have been getting positive results at the position.
The surprising solid play of three youngsters, none of whom have caught a pass in an NFL regular-season game, continued in Sunday’s 31-23 win against the Houston Texans in Reliant Stadium.
With Colston sitting out his third consecutive preseason game and Moore playing sparingly, Nick Toon, Kenny Stills and Andy Tanner had their moments against the Texans — especially Stills and Tanner.
Stills, a fifth-round draft pick this spring, and Tanner, who is desperately trying to avoid earning a practice squad spot for the third year in a row, combined for five catches for 87 yards and three touchdowns.
Toon, who was selected in the fourth round in 2012 but missed the entire season with a foot injury that required surgery, had one reception for 11 yards against Houston.
Yet, Toon and Stills are believed to be fighting for the third and fourth spots with Tanner and former Tampa Bay Bucs wideout Preston Parker vying for the fifth spot. Parker had one catch against the Texans as well as a 52-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown.
Saints coach Sean Payton was asked about how tough it will be to sort everything out when the team has to make 27 roster moves to get down to the regular-season limit of 53 players by 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I think it’s difficult,” Payton said. “We’ve got guys who are stepping up and doing a good job. Andy, Preston — those guys have had good games and there’s good competition there.
“I think there’s good competition there. It’s encouraging for our team.”
While Colston has yet to see the field as he comes back slowly from a foot injury and Moore has only four catches for 50 yards, the Saints know what they have there.
It’s the next three spots that are up for grabs, particularly for the third spot that was held by Devery Henderson last season.
Stills, who has seven catches for 140 yards and two TDs in the preseason, made Texans starting cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph look silly Sunday on the same drive.
First, he went up and used just one arm to make a 40-yard catch against Jackson and capped the drive by a double move to spin Joseph around for a 14-yard TD that gave the Saints a lead for the first time just before halftime.
“That’s huge,” Stills said of the snaps he and Toon have been getting in starting the last two games after getting extra repetitions in practice. “You never know what a player can do until they show it out there on the field during a game.
“So for us just to be out there and be consistent and doing our jobs, I feel like we’re trying to gain as much trust and confidence from the coaches as we can.”
That trust certainly extends to quarterback Drew Brees, who often takes a liking to young receivers who are willing to put in extra time to get better in their complicated passing game.
“That’s how you get better, that’s how you gain confidence,” he said of what Toon, Stills, Tanner and Parker, a three-year veteran, have done.
Parker is tied with Stills and running back Darren Sproles for the team lead with seven receptions, while Tanner has six catches for 92 yards with a long gain of 37 yards.
Toon also has six catches for 133 yards and is averaging 22.2 yards per grab.
Tanner’s second touchdown of Sunday’s game came on a nice over-the-shoulder grab from Ryan Griffin in the end zone after he beat Texans cornerback Brandon harris, a three-year veteran, off the line.
“Those guys are all competing well,” Payton said. “Certainly Andy … he’s been with us a while, so he knows what we’re doing. He made some really good plays tonight.
“That group in general, we’ve seen some younger players step up. So that’s good.”