WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Saints receiver Nick Toon said he realizes there’s more than one way to earn the quarterback’s trust, his primary goal this preseason.
Wideouts can position themselves in the right places. They can make crafty adjustments on their routes to shake a defender and get open. They can spend extra time after practice working on timing and rhythm.
Yet none do the trick quite like simply catching the football.
“It’s easier said than done, but you just got to go out there and do your job,” Toon said after Monday’s training camp practice at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
His job is something the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Toon did at offseason practices and through four days of training camp. He’s repeatedly gotten open deep downfield as well as across the middle in individual and team drills. In both situations, he’s consistently hauled the ball in, occasionally for scores.
Like he did in the offseason as a rookie fourth-round draft selection out of Wisconsin in 2012, when offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. compared him to another 6-foot-4 receiver for the black and gold: veteran Marques Colston. And like he did in training camp at 2013.
But catching the football — the prime way to gain the trust of perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees — is not something Toon has had much of an opportunity to do or has had much success at in meaningful games so far in his NFL career.
That’s not entirely his fault. An old college foot injury flared up on Toon as a rookie early in training camp, and he ended up on season-ending injured reserve before Week 1 that year. He returned in 2013 and latched onto the Saints’ 53-man roster as one of five receivers. However, he subsequently struggled to do that thing that best secures a quarterback’s trust.
Brees targeted Toon 10 times over eight games, according to data from Pro Football Focus. He caught four of those throws for 68 yards, 35 of which came on one grab in a Week 5 win at Chicago.
But Toon dropped three of those 10 passes, one of which bounced off his fingertips for 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.
Nick Toon spent much of the rest of the campaign as the inactive fifth receiver. He was the only receiver Brees threw a pass to in a regular-season game to not catch a touchdown — Lance Moore and Robert Meachem had two, while Colston and Kenny Stills each had five.
Brees’ passer rating throwing toward Toon was a dismal 24.2, Pro Football Focus calculated. The next lowest of such figures was 94.8, when Brees went at Moore, who joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in March in free agency.
“It’s extremely frustrating, definitely a learning experience,” Toon said of his brutal 2013. “But it’s something you have to sit back and look at and say, you know, why did this happen? ... Take it as a learning experience and move forward. There’s new learning experiences every day, positive and negative, and you just got to learn from your past and use it to put yourself in a better position in the future.”
Toon’s future holds a battle for a spot under virtual roster locks Colston, Stills and first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks, winner of the Biletnikoff trophy given to the best receiver in college football in 2013.
Toon’s primary competition is Joseph Morgan, a deep-ball threat who’s back after missing 2013 with a knee injury; and Meachem.
Meachem missed practice Sunday and Monday with back tightness, and Stills has been sidelined since tweaking a quad Friday. That’s given Toon plenty of reps with and against the first-string offense and defense, and he’s capitalized on them for now, emerging from more than one practice session as the consensus leading receiver among the media with a smooth stride and secure hands.
“It was tough last year with just the numbers of getting him into the rotation — this year I definitely see him as someone who competes and factors in for not only playing time but for touches,” coach Sean Payton said. “He has done well these first few days.”
Speaking with reporters Monday, Toon allowed himself to agree he was off to “a great start.” But he stopped himself there, clearly aware that he didn’t yet have what he sought and how difficult it’s been to acquire it.
“Trust comes with time,” Toon said. “It’s something I’ve been trying to continue to develop from the first day I stepped on the field.”