METAIRIE, La. (AP) — When Jameis Winston and Tayson Hill dropped back to pass during 11-on-11 drills at Saints training camp Wednesday, they didn't have the option to throw to record-setting receiver Michael Thomas or established veteran Tre'Quan Smith.
Rather, their chief targets included Chris Hogan, who'd been playing professional lacrosse before his recent signing, or Jalen McCleskey and 2021 seventh-round pick Kawaan Baker, who both have yet to make their NFL debut.
A notable subplot to the Saints' highly scrutinized quarterback competition involves players on the other end of the passes trying to prove they belong in a offense that will enter the regular season missing its most accomplished receivers from 2020.
Saints wide receiver coach Curtis Johnson said there's “a great opportunity" for less-heralded receivers trying to make the club.
“You can tell how they're playing. Those guys are diving. They're hustling,” he said, noting that coach Sean Payton has a history of giving relative unknowns a chance if they outplay those who arrived at camp with more impressive backgrounds.
“If you're good and you can learn the play book and you're making plays, we'd love to have you,” Johnson said.
The Saints already had let Emmanuel Sanders go in free agency when they learned in June that Thomas would need surgery to repair a lingering ankle injury from last season, likely delaying his start to the 2021 campaign.
On Tuesday, Smith, a regular contributor with 34 catches for 448 yards and four TDs last season, pulled up lame and left practice with an undisclosed ailment. He also missed Wednesday's practice, as did Deonte Harris, a return specialist who, in his third pro season, appears on the cusp of earning a greater role as a receiver.
Those absences meant an increase in first-team snaps for Marquez Callaway, a third-year pro who made his NFL debut last season, has never caught a touchdown pass and now finds himself competing for a starting role.
“Very excited about him, a kid who made some plays for us last year,” receivers coach Curtis Johnson said of Callaway, who caught 21 passes for 213 yards last season. “The biggest thing about Callaway is just inexperience playing NFL games. But he's very smart, picks up everything well. I like how he separates and catches the ball.”
Hogan, best known for his contributions to New England's championships in 2016 and 2018, has been making multiple catches in every practice — all over the field. It's an encouraging sign for a player who, at 33, wasn't sure he'd get another chance in the NFL.
“I wasn't sure what my future held in football,” Hogan said.
His immediate future could be as a veteran leader for the Saints' receiver corps.
“Love him. Glad to have him,” Johnson said. “Been around winning programs. He's a leader already. He makes plays. He's getting guys lined up.”
McCleskey has caught coaches' attention with his speed and sure hands. His father, J.J., was an eight-year NFL defensive back with New Orleans and Arizona, and now serves as Tulane's secondary coach.
Now in his second pro season out of Tulane, the younger McCleskey spent 2020 training camp with Atlanta but was cut last September.
“You can tell he's a coach's kid," Johnson said, adding that he finds McCleskey reminiscent of former LSU and Saints receiver Devery Henderson. “Jalen looks real good for us.”
Lil'Jordan Humphry, now in his third season out of Texas, also is in the mix. His 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame makes him a big target.
But the 5-fot-6 Harris also has stood out in camp, catching a deep pass from Winston for a touchdown during 11-on-11 work in the opening practice.
Comparing some of Harris' attributes to those of former Saints running back Darren Sproles, Johnson said Harris “has to” have a bigger role in the offense.
“That kid's very, very explosive," Johnson said. “He's young. He's fast. He's exciting. Just get him in space with the ball in his hands. He's an electric guy.”
Notes: The Saints signed cornerback Adonis Alexander after placing fellow cornerback Keith Washington on injured reserve. ... Payton indicated the Saints would take their time returning newly re-signed linebacker Kwon Alexander to full practice. After Alexander spent the offseason rehabilitating a December Achilles injury, Payton said, “the worst thing we could do is throw him right back out into practice.”
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