Rookie wide receiver Marquez Callaway has been high on my radar since the NFL Scouting Combine. I figured the lean and long-armed receiving prospect would come into Saints Training Camp and challenge for a roster spot. He did exactly that.
On last Monday night, you could see why head coach Sean Payton, offensive coordinator, and assistant coach Curtis Johnson are high on Callaway's future in New Orleans.
During a Saints training video call with media, I asked Sean Payton, "what had he seen from him" about the progress of Callaway.
Callaway, being undrafted, and the other rookies did not have the rookie camp, OTAs, and other mini-camps to get "up to speed" due to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing teams to shut-down facilities.
Coach Payton referenced the fact every practice essentially was the rookie's preseason games. There wasn't a great buzz surrounding Callaway, but he caught most of the balls thrown in his direction. Payton concluded his answer with, "So these practices, in essence, become their preseason games, all of its being evaluated. But he's a player we're looking closely at; I've been encouraged with, with some of his progress."
The Saints coaching staff are Callaway earned a roster spot while veteran receivers like Austin Carr, Lil' Jordan Humphrey, Bennie Fowler, and Emmanuel Butler did not make the final 53-man roster cut for 2020. New Orleans decided to keep Callaway because of his promise and talent shown in the training camp.
On Monday night, Callaway didn't prove Sean Payton nor his former Tennessee Volunteer standout wide receiver/returner teammate, Alvin Kamara. Listen to what Kamara dished on Callaway in his presser:
Sean Payton does not trust many players as rookies. Neither did his mentor and Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. As All-Pro kick and punt returner Deonte Harris is on the mend, the Saint gave both kickoff and punt return assignments to Callaway, and he did not disappoint.
Callaway's stats against the Chargers were 2 kickoff returns for 57 yards (28.5-yard average), 6 punt returns for 69 yards (11.5-yard average), and added 4 receptions (six targets) for 34 yards, and converted two first downs on offense. On the season, Callaway has 5 receptions for 50 yards and 3 first downs. His offensive snaps percentage increased to 68% in Week 5 from 21% in Week 4.
His most remarkable impression was his understanding of the return game and how he was decisive after receiving the football and ran up-field instead of side-to-side like some young returners. He allowed his blockers to set up lanes, immediately saw the openings, and possessed an open-field elusiveness. While at Tennessee, Callaway returned three punts for touchdowns. He averaged 13.6 yards per punt return. However, he did not have a touchdown on kickoff returns, but in his senior year averaged 18.5 yards per return.
Rookies, who earn the confidence of coaching staff, also earn more playing time and targets. Usually, a rookie and especially an undrafted player may be raw in route running, blocking, and finding spots in zone coverages. Yet, Callaway had done all of these in five games. His down-field blocking setup Alvin Kamara's mind-bending touchdown against the Packers. He also has contributed blocking on a few sweeps and Murray's touchdown in the Lions game and Taysom Hill's score versus the Chargers.
Marquez gave Drew Brees several opportunities to connect with him and converted two important first-downs for the Saints versus the Chargers. His game is reminiscent of a previous and beloved #12 for the Saints, Marques Colston. Callaway is sort of a tweener in body type and size - sort of a hybrid of Michael Thomas and Colston. I believe Callaway will his body will mature as Michael Thomas' did after his rookie campaign. A true offseason strength and conditioning program will help Callaway fine-tune his game before next season.
It may be too early to tell, and I don't want to over-hype a young player -but Callaway is an emerging talent for the Saints. He becomes another player in the line of successful undrafted free agents that VP/Assistant General Manager Terry Fontenot's staff has scouted and recommended for New Orleans to sign after a draft.
Will Callaway be that next down-field receiving threat for the Saints have longed for since the days of Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Willie Snead, and Kenny Stills? He undoubtedly is a work in progress and has a tremendous upside. If you know the Saints coaching staff, his snap counts are a sign they trust and believe in Marquez Callaway. Will he continue to deliver?
We shall see.
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