Marcus Murphy has Sean Payton’s attention.
Early in Sunday’s postgame news conference, a reporter asked the Saints coach about fellow back Edwin Baker, whose 45-yard touchdown run gave New Orleans its only touchdown in a 27-13 loss to Houston on Sunday.
Payton, who had just finished praising Murphy in the locker room, had the seventh-round pick from Missouri on his brain, and he opened his answer by talking about Murphy instead of Baker, a faux pas he realized almost instantly.
But his answer revealed how pleased the Saints are with the final pick of their 2015 draft haul.
“I think it reaffirmed what we’ve been seeing,” Payton said. “I like the player. He’s making this team.”
Payton’s endorsement, coming two days before New Orleans is required to cut its roster down to 75 players, carries plenty of weight.
A seventh-round pick’s spot on the final 53 is rarely guaranteed, and Murphy opened training camp knowing he’d have to prove himself as a return man against stiff competition from Jalen Saunders and key skill players like C.J. Spiller and Brandin Cooks.
But Murphy’s been exactly what the Saints hoped.
In three preseason games, he’s averaging 25.5 yards per kick return, 9.8 yards per punt return, and he’s come close to breaking at least one return wide-open in every preseason game. On Sunday, Murphy took a punt, reversed field and raced up the right sideline deep into Texans territory.
A penalty brought the return back, but Murphy’s capabilities have been obvious.
“I think he’s got pretty good vision, I think he’s explosive,” Payton said. “I think there’s a knack he has, and he’s not a returner that’s going to try to run around the defense. He’s going to run north and south, and I think he’s pretty quick to accelerate.”
As good as he’s been, Murphy didn’t know he’d convinced his coach to lock up a roster spot.
And the rookie is taking Payton’s praise in stride.
“It’s a great accomplishment, and it’s a start, but just coming in as a player, I’ve still got a lot of growing to do,” Murphy said. “I try not to focus on that. I want to let my play determine the result.”
Murphy might be able to help the Saints on offense, if Sunday’s performance against the Texans is any indication.
Offered his first extended action at running back, Murphy rolled up 43 yards on eight carries, caught three passes for 67 yards and turned in the offense’s second-longest play by taking a short catch-and-run from Garrett Grayson and exploiting the underbelly of the Houston defense for 41 yards.
Used mostly as a third-down back and perimeter threat at Missouri, even when he took over the starting role for the Tigers as a senior last year, Murphy also proved he can run between the tackles, using his burst to cut through narrow seams in the offensive line.
“It may be (an underrated trait), and it’s an adjustment,” Murphy said. “We run a different offense than we did at Missouri, so that’s part of the growing experience.”
Murphy’s emergence on offense offers the Saints another option with Spiller recovering from a procedure on his knee.
The New Orleans offense has always had a place for a running back capable of making plays in space and catching the ball out of the backfield, and Murphy’s performance against the Texans shows he might be ready to handle that role sooner than the Saints might have initially thought.
Up until Sunday, Murphy had made most of his big plays in the return game, save for a 1-yard touchdown run late in the preseason opener against Baltimore.
All Murphy was waiting for was an opportunity.
“In the past weeks, we’ve been going with a lot of backs, a lot of rotation and I’ve been getting in in the fourth quarter,” Murphy said. “But I was able to get in earlier in the game and show what I have.”
What Murphy has is the type of skill set the Saints have always been able to use well in the past.
And he clearly made an impression on the man who matters most.