Explosive. Consistent. Good Shape. Improving route-runner.
Those were the adjectives New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton used to describe wide receiver Joe Morgan to wrap up the first week of training camp. The third-year player out of Walsh caught 10 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns in 2012 — averaging 37.9 yards per reception while emerging as a new deep threat for quarterback Drew Brees.
He was in line for a far bigger role in the offense as the third receiver behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore this season — until he suffered a knee injury during a scrimmage on Saturday that was confirmed to be season-ending meniscus and ACL tears on Wednesday.
“It’s not a full ACL, but this will be season-ending for him,” Payton said..”Obviously, that is significant and that surgery is being done today.”
Suddenly, the Saints’ somewhat thin wide receiver group is now bordering on razor-thin ice levels.
“We’re going to have a chance to watch a lot of young guys get a lot of work,” Payton said. “I think that’s pretty obvious, so we’ll see how they do. We have enough numbers here and they’re going to get plenty of work even with the first and second group.”
Nick Toon, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2012 who missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, is now competing for that third spot with rookie Kenny Stills, a fifth-round pick from Oklahoma. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Toon was extremely productive with 171 receptions in college, and Stills possesses the 4.38-second speed the Saints have coveted in years past with the likes of Morgan and Devery Henderson.
Stills caught 204 passes for the Sooners, and has impressed Brees with his ability to pick up the offense as a rookie.
“He’s been great,” Brees said after the first scrimmage of camp. “It’s hard as a skill position player, especially a receiver in this offense, to step in and absorb it all and play multiple positions, which he has at times.
“I think this has never been too big for him. His demeanor is very calm, cool (and) smooth. He showed that out there (in the scrimmage); nothing really fazes him. When the ball is thrown to him, he does a great job of plucking it out with his hands. He has great body control. I think he has a lot of natural ability that we can continue to develop.”
Toon is more of a big-bodied receiver, but Colston cautioned against comparing them any further than that.
“Obviously, he is a bigger body guy, but that is probably where the similarities stop,” Colston said. “I think he is a little more sudden and faster than a lot of people give him credit for and that is just a credit to the work he has put in this offseason.”
The team brought in veteran free agent Laurent Robinson for a workout and signed 29-year-old Steve Breaston, a one-time productive receiver for the Arizona Cardinals who finished last season on the game-day inactive list for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Well, we worked a few guys out, but Breaston is a guy that can run and he’s had a lot of snaps in this league. He worked out well and we’ll see how he does,” Payton said.
Payton is also looking for someone to step up out of a group of youngsters that includes Saalim Hakim, Andy Tanner, Jarred Fayson and Preston Parker. Tanner suffered a shoulder injury in the same scrimmage that Morgan went down in, and Fayson returned this week from a hand contusion.
Hakim is a second-year speedster who made some excellent plays on the practice squad last season before earning December promotion to the active roster.
“He is explosive. You see that daily,” Payton said. “Now, with this position group, how can they help us in the kicking game as well? But, he is an interesting prospect. He is picking up what we are doing, but he is someone who gives us run after the catch. So it is good to work with someone like that and develop it.”
There is no masking the potential impact of Morgan’s loss, however. With Colston recovering from a foot issue, the Saints are one more injury away from Moore being the only receiver on the roster with extensive experience playing with Brees.
Morgan was enjoying a strong camp while atoning for a DUI in May that landed him in Stage 1 of the NFL’s substance abuse program.
“He is a guy who has experience now. He is no longer a young player,” Payton said of Morgan just last Friday. “He is someone that has specifics with his route-running that I think can help him. He is explosive, (and) he can run down the field. Just the overall consistency of more snaps and handling that, he is doing well. He is in good shape. I think where he is at right now is just refining the small things, (and) the details within the framework of the position.”
Morgan won’t have an opportunity to put his development on display in 2013, but Colston is confident the group of young receivers can step up.
“I have seen a lot of good things from every guy on the receiver core at this point,” he said. “Just to stress to them that this is an opportunity. Obviously, you hate to see guys go down, but there are going to be more reps opened up and I look forward to seeing those guys take advantage.”
Colston isn’t known as a vocal leader, but he has taken it upon himself to serve as a mentor.
“I make sure that I am resource for those guys, anything on or off the field,” he said. “These guys have done a great job coming in here and picking everything up pretty quickly and it has translated on to the field and they have made some big plays. I just continue to look forward to working with some of these young guys.”
The Saints also announced that veteran defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who spent the past two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, will have surgery for a torn pectoral muscle that probably will be season-ending.