The New Orleans Saints offense took a big hit with the news that All-Pro WR Michael Thomas will miss a significant portion of the season after ankle surgery.
Thomas is the NFL's most productive wideout, but the unit has failed to produce a consistent complement to him in recent seasons. It was a shortcoming that proved costly in 2020.
Thomas missed nine games with a serious ankle injury that severely limited him even when he did play. Without him, the Saints slipped to 19th in the league in passing. It was the lowest aerial production in coach Sean Payton's fifteen years with the franchise.
The team's entire receiving corps was also beset by injuries, along with a serious rib injury and a decline in the abilities of QB Drew Brees.
With Brees now retired, the Saints were expecting a return to form from Thomas for quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill.
Thomas could miss up to 14 weeks while rehabilitating, leaving Winston and Hill with largely the same group that struggled in 2020.
To be fair, there are some exciting prospects within the receiving corps, who are now under the microscope to step up in a big way.
With the Saints just days away from the start of training camp, here is a preview of a position with plenty of questions.
Saints Wide Receiver Depth Chart
- Michael Thomas (PUP)
- Chris Hogan (newly signed)
- Marquez Callaway
- Deonte Harris
- Tre'Quan Smith
- Juwan Johnson
- Lil'Jordan Humphrey
- Kawaan Baker
- Jalen McCleskey
- Jake Lampman
- Easop Winston
Callaway, an undrafted rookie last season, was perhaps the Saints biggest surprise of 2020. Making a perennial playoff contender as an undrafted rookie was impressive enough.
Callaway did it in a shortened offseason and no preseason games. He then made a significant contribution to the team, especially early in the year.
Callaway struggled with a hamstring injury after the middle portion of the season, but stepped in to make key contributions early in the campaign. In eleven games, he hauled in 21 receptions for 213 yards and averaged over 11 yards per punt return.
The book on Callaway coming out of college from Tennessee was that he was a deep threat with terrific ball-tracking skills. However, he supposedly lacked the route precision to be effective in a timing-based New Orleans offense.
Callaway quickly earned the trust of Brees and Payton for his route-running ability and diligent work through traffic. Expected to compete for the Number 2 role to Thomas, Callaway may now emerge as the top wideout until his return.
His game breaking abilities should come out more with the strong-armed Winston or Hill behind center. His route precision figures to get even better with a full offseason to digest the playbook.
Smith enters his fourth NFL season hoping to finally fulfill the expectations caused by a promising rookie campaign. He’s coming off the most productive year of his career with 34 catches for 448 yards and 4 touchdowns.
That production over 14 games was still considered a disappointment. Especially with the team needing more after Thomas went down.
Smith has had several opportunities, but has never been able to secure the Number 2 wideout job. He possesses game breaking ability but is unable to get consistent separation underneath, struggles in traffic, and disappears for long stretches.
If New Orleans uses the deep ball more this year that should open up more opportunities for Smith. However, he must finally be able to provide his quarterback a reliable target through the intermediate zones.
Smith, 25, has prototypical size at 6’2” and 210-Lbs. and has a long stride difficult to stay with down the field. He has impressive blocking skills for the position, but must produce more as a receiver for the team's offense.
If Callaway was the biggest surprise of 2020, Harris was an even bigger shock in 2019. A diminutive rookie from tiny Assumption College, Harris went from undrafted rookie to All-Pro kick returner in 2019.
One of the league's most explosive players in the open field, Payton schemed to get Harris more involved offensively in 2020.
The plan worked perfectly early in the season. Harris had 20 receptions for 186 yards and a touchdown over the first eight games and added six rushes for 51 yards. A mid-season neck injury sidelined him for the rest of the regular season.
Harris returned to lead all receivers with 7 receptions for 83 yards in a Wild-card win over Chicago. He re-aggravated his neck injury early in the Division Round loss to Tampa Bay, costing the team a valuable weapon down the stretch.
Harris showed terrific hands and good route-running ability as a receiver. His skills are too good to not be used in creative ways for the offense. At 5’6” and just 170-Lbs., the Saints want to limit the pounding he’d receive as an every down receiver.
Harris is the league's most dangerous kick returner, a weapon the team won't want to neutralize with an injury on the offensive side.
A NEW ADDITION
New Orleans signed former New England Patriots postseason hero Chris Hogan on Monday.
In the best stretch of his career, Hogan caught 107 passes for 1,651 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Patriots between 2016 and 2018. He added 34 receptions for 542 yards and 4 scores in nine playoff games with New England.
Hogan has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons. He's appeared in just 12 of 32 contests with the Panthers and Jets between 2019 and 2020.
Hogan is a precise route runner with sure hands, giving his quarterback a reliable intermediate target. He also has underrated speed to challenge defenses down the field.
THE OTHER NEWCOMERS
The Saints showed little interest in receivers during free agency or early rounds of the draft. They used a seventh-round choice, pick number 255, on WR Kawaan Baker of South Alabama.
Baker, 6’1” and 210-Lbs., has explosive athleticism and an elite initial burst to put pressure on defenses. He can play either inside or outside and improved his route precision each year in college.
Undrafted Second-year wideout Jalen McCleskey was added before the draft after being released by the Falcons last season. McCleskey was an extremely productive receiver at Oklahoma State. He finished his collegiate career at Tulane.
At 5'11" and just 165-Lbs., McCleskey has the skill set to play inside or outside. He has lightening fast quickness and operates well through the intermediate zones.
Both McCleskey and Baker have experience returning kicks. If either can show they can produce enough to make the roster, their versatility will give the team more options for Harris.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT
Juwan Johnson (2020) and Lil' Jordan Humphrey (2019) both made the team as undrafted rookies the last two years. Neither has made a major impact, but both players have seen time on the active roster.
Johnson, 6’4 and 231-Lbs., appeared in seven games and caught 4 passes for 39 yards as a rookie. He doesn't have great speed, but is a physical receiver who uses his body well in traffic.
Johnson worked out at tight end during OTA's and would give the Saints extra roster versatility if he can make the team.
Humphrey, 6’4 and 224-Lbs., has appeared in eight games over his two seasons. He has 4 receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown. Like Johnson, he won't threaten defenses deep, but has the physicality to work well underneath.
Veteran RB/WR Ty Montgomery gives the team another receiver option with his versatility. Taysom Hill can also give New Orleans snaps at wideout, if he loses the starting quarterback duel to Jameis Winston.
Two long shots are rookie UDFA Easop Winston and 28-year-old veteran Jake Lampman. Winston was a productive pass catcher in two years of college at Washington State. Lampman has served three stints on the New Orleans practice squad since 2016.
Remember that some of the Saints best receivers have come into the league undrafted or as late-round selections.
Even after signing Hogan, New Orleans may audition more free-agent wideouts. However, they'll need at least one of the previously overlooked wideouts currently on the roster to come up big until Thomas returns.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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