Signs of the importance of the Saints’ exhibition at Indianapolis on Saturday evening are everywhere.
Franchise quarterback Drew Brees will take his first game snaps this preseason after sitting out victories at St. Louis on Aug. 8 and at home against Tennessee on Aug. 15. Saints safety Jairus Byrd — signed in March to a massive six-year deal worth up to $54 million — is expecting to do the same after making a full return to practice following a back surgery in late May.
Those are just two reasons the trip to Lucas Oil Stadium will simulate a regular-season contest better than anything else the Saints will encounter before Week 1. That adds to the importance of Saturday for unproven players battling to make the roster and wanting to show they can contribute under conditions closest to what they will be when the meaningful action kicks off the first week of September.
And perhaps no player has more to show than Saints receiver Nick Toon.
Toon tried to downplay what the Colts game might signify for his professional future when he met with the media Thursday, saying, “As far as things pan out and depth, I really don’t think about it, don’t worry about it — that’s not my job. Let the coaches, the staff take care of that and just let things fall into place.”
But the reality is, this would be the ideal time for the 2012 fourth-round draft choice to distinguish himself in what’s been a crowded audition.
Barring something unforeseen, New Orleans will head into its 2014 campaign with these men as their top three wideouts: veteran Marques Colston, the best receiver in Saints history; Kenny Stills, who led the NFL with 20 yards per catch and had five touchdowns as a rookie in 2013; and Brandin Cooks, the rookie first-round draft selection with six grabs for 71 yards and a TD in his first two games as a pro.
Assuming they decide to carry five receivers like they did in 2013, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Toon is jockeying for one of two available openings. His chief competition comes from Joseph Morgan and Robert Meachem, and he hasn’t yet demonstrated he merits a spot over either of them.
Morgan (four catches) has the eighth-most receiving yards in the NFL this preseason (121). His average of 30.2 yards per catch was the league’s second-highest on Friday; and it was an unmistakable indication that Morgan was much more the player who had 379 yards and three scores on a mere 10 grabs in 2012 than the one who missed 2011 and 2013 with knee injuries.
Meachem has been quiet in the exhibitions (one catch for 14 yards), and he dropped a pass in the end zone against Tennessee. However, over eight NFL regular seasons (seven spent with the Saints), Meachem has a track record of physical run-blocking, a ring from Super Bowl XLIV as well as 2,800 yards and 27 touchdowns on 171 catches.
Toon’s production so far this preseason shies in a head-to-head comparison with Morgan’s.
Tied for the second-most snaps (65) among players not on the offensive line or at quarterback, Toon is 10th on the Saints with 17 yards on four catches.
It helps he hasn’t dropped any of the five passes targeted at him, but it hurt he was flagged for an illegal block above the waist at the end of a 50-yard play that moved the Saints from the Rams’ 8 to their 22.
Meanwhile, Toon doesn’t have the résumé of someone like Meachem to give him some cushion in a tight position race. A foot injury caused him to miss his rookie year. He returned in 2013 and cracked the Saints’ 53-man roster — but subsequently dropped three of 10 passes Brees threw at him in eight outings.
One of those drops resulted in an interception in a Nov. 3 defeat on the road to the New York Jets when he was filling in for an injured Colston. Another of those drops occurred earlier in the same game, which was against the team for which his father, Al, was an All-Pro receiver.
Toon hardly dressed out for games the rest of the year, which saw the Saints field the second-best passing offense and reach the divisional round of the playoffs. He finished with four catches for 68 yards.
Forging on, at numerous training-camp practices this preseason Toon has repeatedly freed himself up downfield and across the middle in individual and team drills to catch passes. Those grabs have occasionally happened in the end zone.
Brees and coach Sean Payton have frequently been spotted approaching Toon after routes he’s run to discuss things such as adjustments and opportunities being provided by the defense. They’re clearly not giving up on him.
“I know he can be a real productive guy and big contributor for us,” Brees said when asked about his chats with Toon. “I have a great comfort level with Toon, but that’s always growing.”
Toon appreciates the attention. He said, “It’s ... just trying to clean up everything and get as close to perfect as you can before the game. Obviously, I’m still learning. The learning process never stops.”
That may be, but a big exam is here. And there’s no better night for Toon to use his prior instruction and prove he deserves his seat in the classroom.