Marcus Murphy knew exactly what the look Drew Brees shot his way meant.
The second-year back had lined up wide, and veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe trotted over to line up in one-on-one coverage against the speedster. For Murphy, that’s an obvious mismatch, and he knew Brees was coming his way. Moments later, Murphy hauled in a brilliant back-shoulder throw from Brees up the sideline.
“Drew gave me his eye, and I knew what time it was,” Murphy said. “We’ve been working on that since I came back. ... I probably could have (made the same play last summer), but I wouldn’t have been as comfortable trying to make the play. Now that I’ve been in the system for a year and understand everything that’s going on, it was very easy to catch on to that.”
Murphy is going to have to make plays like that catch to earn a spot in a crowded Saints running back room this year.
At this time last summer, all Murphy had to do to make the team as a seventh-round pick was to prove himself as a return man, a role he relished and won handily, beating out veteran Jalen Saunders in the process.
Now, Murphy finds himself fighting for a role at a position that includes this year’s seventh-round pick, Daniel Lasco, and long-time Saint Travaris Cadet in addition to veterans Mark Ingram, Tim Hightower and C.J. Spiller.
“We’re still learning with him, what kind of a runner can he be, what can he do, and can he handle the sub-packages?” Saints head coach Sean Payton said last week. “Is he a guy that becomes more of a joker type of player like Darren Sproles or Cadet,that we view as more of a pass-route runner, or someone where we can get a matchup? ... We’re still learning.”
Murphy’s likely role in the offense might land at a spot that’s shaping up to be one of training camp’s toughest competitions. Spiller is healthy again after a disappointing debut in New Orleans, and Cadet is back after a productive two-game stint late in the season, after both Murphy and Spiller ended up on injured reserve.
“I’d say it is still to be determined,” Payton said. “I think he has a good football awareness. He’ll be competing obviously in that returner role, and then obviously as a guy on game day trying to be a running back.”
The high ankle sprain Murphy suffered against Tampa Bay in December might have robbed him of a chance to prove his skills as a running back late last season.
Murphy had already proven he could be a capable return man. A few ball security issues aside, Murphy averaged 25 yards per return on 12 kickoffs before giving way to Spiller midseason, and he shined on punts, averaging 9.3 yards per return, including a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown at Carolina.
But the ankle injury came in the same game the Saints gave Murphy the first carry of his career, the only snap he played on offense as a rookie. Faced with an injury that has a tendency to linger, Murphy had to go on injured reserve and missed out on the chance to take some of the 54 snaps Cadet got when Spiller was placed on IR for the final two games.
“The injury was frustrating,” Murphy said. “It was the end of the year, I thought I’d be able to get some opportunities in the backfield, but things happen. I just want to come back this year and pick up where I left off.”
Murphy, who is compactly built at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds, spent the offseason trying to improve his speed and agility, knowing full well it’s those assets that could be used to make him a weapon in the Saints offense.
“Even though I’m not a rookie anymore, I still continuously study my playbook, just to make sure I’m on top of my game,” Murphy said.
“And even when I’m not at practice, I’m out running routes, catching passes, just to sharpen my skills and make sure I’m A1 when it comes time for practice and the games.”
Now that the Saints’ summer workouts are here, Murphy knows it’s time to start showing off what he’s learned, regardless of who else is on the roster.
He’s already won a job with New Orleans once. Now it’s up to him to do it again.
“Competition is going to be an ongoing thing,” Murphy said. “You just have to come out and show you can make plays.”