Whoever ended up winning the New Orleans Saints’ last wide receiver spot was going to deserve it. Whoever fell short wasn’t going to deserve to get cut — it’s just somebody had to lose what turned out to be the most fascinating position battle in town this preseason.
It was easy to root for all three candidates. Incumbent Courtney Roby should go down in history as one of the Saints’ most beloved special teams mainstays. Challenger Preston Parker sought a second shot in the NFL with a divisional rival of the team that waived him, an organization he no doubt wanted to prove wrong. Andy Tanner, New Orleans’ newly minted No. 5 wideout, sought his first shot.
Whether before or during the preseason, all of them showed the Saints they could contribute if deemed to be among “the right 53” coach Sean Payton so often alluded to. Whoever the coaches chose wasn’t going to be a main weapon as much as a supplement to the arsenal — the Saints were set at wide receiver with Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and Nick Toon.
And then there’s Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles at running back, as well as Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson at tight end.
Therefore, the race at fifth wide receiver came down to mere preference.
And coach Payton and his staff simply preferred Tanner, with his clean route-running and soft hands, over Roby — a prolific special-teams tackler who had been able to return kicks if the occasion called for it — and Parker, who kind of combined what Tanner and Roby offered.
Few Saints fans will forget Roby’s 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in 2009, which helped New Orleans start the year 9-0 before ultimately winning Super Bowl XLIV.
He averaged 25.6 yards on 94 kickoff returns, one of the best kickoff return averages in team history. He consistently led the special teams in tackles despite often fighting off two blockers and was named the unit’s captain in 2011 and 2012.
But he blended in with the crowd in the preseason, and in no way was he ever a true receiver with the Saints. He caught just two passes for 15 yards in more than four seasons with New Orleans.
A true receiver is obviously what the Saints wanted out of anyone they would carry on the roster under Stills and Toon, so Roby became the third player since 2010 to be cut from the Saints a season after serving as special teams captain.
As Saints’ Pro Bowl punter Thomas Morstead wrote on his Twitter account on Saturday: “Courtney Roby was a great teammate ... and big part of our success. NFL cut day is the worst.”
Parker is unquestionably more of a receiver than Roby. He caught 44 passes for 596 yards and three touchdowns in the 27 games he played with Tampa Bay from 2010 to 2012 before signing with New Orleans.
He opened the preseason in style by catching two touchdown passes in the first exhibition against the Kansas City Chiefs, a 17-13 win against New Orleans. He flashed a bit of Roby-like returning ability by running a kickoff back 52 yards to the Saints’ 46 in the team’s third exhibition, a 31-23 win against the Houston Texans.
Coincidentally, though, that return set up Tanner for his moment of glory. After Roby drew a 40-yard pass interference penalty and caught a 6-yard pass, backup quarterback Luke McCown hooked up with Tanner for an 8-yard touchdown pass.
Tanner eventually caught a second touchdown pass, a 15-yard throw from Griffin over two defenders. Parker and Tanner seemed to be locked in a dead heat heading into the preseason finale against the Miami Dolphins, and Roby was left hoping his achievements on special teams would set him apart.
Neither Roby nor Tanner caught a pass in the 24-21 loss to Miami, and Parker hauled in two throws for 41 yards. Parker finished the exhibitions with 122 yards on nine catches, Tanner with 92 yards on six catches and Roby, as was typical, had one grab for six yards.
However, as is said all throughout the preseason, statistics at this point in the year are but a small part of players’ evaluations, and Payton’s brain trust opted for Tanner.
In no way is it upsetting that Tanner got the nod. He’s been on and off the Saints practice squad since 2010, and New Orleans has cut him 16 times.
Now, he’s having perhaps the best year of his life — he and his wife, Kristine, had a boy about three months ago.
Again, let’s turn to Morstead, who tweeted in regards to Tanner, “Can’t think of a more deserving guy!”
But the truth is the phrase “may the best man win” didn’t apply to this three-way contest. There was no wrong choice among Tanner, Parker or Roby.