New Orleans Saints All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas suffered a severe ankle injury during the 2020 season opening win over Tampa Bay. The injury forced Thomas to miss nine games and left him as a fraction of his normal dominance when he did play. Without him, a normally productive New Orleans passing attack was handcuffed all season.
The Saints passing game ranked just 19th in 2020, their lowest production since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived to the team in 2006. Part of the reason for the struggles, along with the injury to Thomas, was a decline in Brees' abilities, and a serious rib injury that limited his effectiveness and sidelined him for four games.
Brees retired this offseason, leaving Jameis Winston as his likely replacement. Winston has put up prolific passing statistics throughout his career. Let’s look at the wideouts on the roster that he’ll have at his disposal.
- Michael Thomas - #13 (28)
- Marquez Callaway - #12 (23)
- Deonte Harris - #11 (23)
- Tre'Quan Smith - #10 (25)
- Juwan Johnson - #83 (24)
- Lil'Jordan Humphrey - #84 (23)
- Kawaan Baker* - #14 (22)*
- Jalen McCleskey - #17 (23)
- Jake Lampman - #19 (27)
- Easop Winston - #85 (24)
(Jersey Number and age)
* = Rookie
Michael Thomas caught at least 92 passes for a minimum of 1,100 yards over his first four seasons, setting NFL records for productivity. After leading the league with 1,725 yards on an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019, he caught just 40 passes for 438 yards in seven games last year.
Now healthy after offseason surgery, expect Thomas to be again a major part of the New Orleans offense in 2021. He’s a physical wideout that is nearly unstoppable through the intermediate zones because of outstanding route precision and terrific hands.
One of the team’s biggest surprises in 2020, Marquez Callaway, made the team as an undrafted rookie and quickly became a trusted target for Brees. Callaway had 21 receptions for 213 yards in eleven games of action. He also filled in capably as a kickoff and punt returner when Deonte Harris missed time with injuries.
Primarily a deep threat in college at Tennessee, Callaway has great ball-tracking skills and leaping ability. He showed excellent physicality in his route development underneath last season and will have an opportunity to earn the number two wideout spot to complement Thomas.
Deonte Harris took the NFL by storm in 2019, going from an undersized and undrafted rookie from Assumption College to an All-Pro kick returner. Harris became a bigger part of the offense in 2020, hauling in 28 receptions for 268 yards and a touchdown in just 11 games of action, including playoffs.
One of the NFL's most feared kickoff and punt returner, Harris, actually averaged more yards per return in 2020 than during his spectacular rookie campaign. Despite his size (5’6” 170-Lbs) and special team's value, we should expect to see Harris’ explosive open field ability used even more on offense in 2021.
Tre'Quan Smith caught 34 passes for 448 yards in 2020, both career-highs, while scoring 5 touchdowns. He added 3 receptions for 85 yards and 2 scores in the Saints Divisional Round loss to Tampa Bay. Smith has 80 receptions for 1,109 yards and 14 touchdowns over his three-year career, all with the Saints.
A third-round choice in the 2018 draft, Smith hasn't developed into a consistent number two wideout. He presents a big target at 6’2 210-lbs; his deep-ball ability may flourish with the strong-armed Winston behind center.
Juwan Johnson, like Callaway, made the team as an undrafted rookie last year despite the lack of preseason games and offseason activities. Johnson appeared in seven games and caught 4 passes for 39 yards.
A huge target at 6’4” 231-Lbs., Johnson is a physical receiver with a long stride to gain separation downfield. He could face big odds to make the roster again, but presents a physical mismatch against defensive backs and has been working out with Winston this offseason to build rapport.
Lost in the dynamic accomplishments of Deonte Harris in 2019 was the fact that Lil'Jordan Humphrey also contributed as an undrafted rookie. Humphrey has appeared in ten games over his two-year career with the Saints, catching 4 passes for 60 yards and a score.
Another big target at 6’4 225-Lbs., Humphrey has soft hands and operates well through the middle of the field. He’s been a reliable blocker for the team, but will have to make an impact as a receiver to make the roster for a third straight year.
New Orleans used a 7th round draft pick, the 255th overall selection, on South Alabama WR Kawaan Baker. An explosive athlete with instant acceleration, Baker caught 119 passes for 1,727 yards and scored 26 touchdowns his last three seasons at South Alabama.
Baker has good size at 6’1” 210-Lbs. He’ll need to play more physically and improve his route precision, but has excelled from both the slot and outside positions. Baker is a dynamic running threat on short throws and has the speed to take a top off the defense.
Prior to the draft, the Saints signed wideout Jalen McCleskey, who played his senior year of college at Tulane. Son of former New Orleans defensive back J.J. McCleskey, Jalen was a highly productive receiver for Oklahoma State for four years before catching 37 passes for 581 yards and 4 scores in 2019 with Tulane.
McCleskey, who was on Atlanta's practice squad in 2020, stands 5'11" but weighs just 165-Lbs. He is a lightning-fast receiver capable of beating a defense deep and a big-play threat after a short reception.
Jake Lampman joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2016. After spending two years with Tampa Bay's practice squad then out of the NFL in 2019, he re-signed with New Orleans last season.
EASON WINSTON, JR.
The team also added Easop Winston, Jr., an undrafted player from Washington State in 2020 who spent training camp with the Los Angeles Rams. Winston and Lampman are trying to become the latest wideouts who emerge from obscurity to become contributors for the New Orleans offense.
Amazingly, seven of the ten receivers currently on the New Orleans roster went undrafted coming out of college. Make no mistake, the success of the New Orleans passing attack revolves around the amazing abilities of Michael Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara. However, the continued development of Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway, along with the hopeful emergence of a few other previously overlooked receivers, will be the key to a successful season for new quarterback Jameis Winston.
You can follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613
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