WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — After Sunday’s practice wrapped up and he finished milling about, Brandon Coleman put his head down, walked across the field and picked up his pads. He then took up a few more steps, bent over and scooped up Marques Colston’s pads and retreated to the locker room.
The implication was clear. Coleman might have spent last year on the practice squad, technically making him something other than a rookie. And he might be pegged to take on a bigger role and help replace some of what was lost by the departures of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills this offseason.
But he still has a lot of prove.
So while the rest of the NFL expects Coleman to be a big part of the New Orleans offense this season, his teammates are letting him know that he has to prove it and earn his role. This is no time to get a big head or feel entitled.
But if everything goes as planned, Coleman’s days of doing grunt work should end soon. He’s off to a fast start at camp, which he credits to the work he put in this offseason, and is emerging as the early leader in the pack of receivers behind Colston and Brandin Cooks.
“Brandon is smart. He knows what to do,” coach Sean Payton said. “This confidence kind of comes through reps, come through getting reps in practice and ultimately comes through game experience. ... His offseason has been very good.”
There’s a different feeling around Coleman than there was at last year’s camp. Signed as an undrafted free agent, he struggled with concentration drops last August and wasn’t fully healthy after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus and quad before his final season at Rutgers. He didn’t miss any games but said it lingered into preseason camp, which affected his performance.
Payton has noticed a difference from Coleman simply getting healthy, not to mention the growth he has made over the past year. It has become clear that Drew Brees has confidence and is developing chemistry with Coleman, further fostered this offseason when Coleman traveled to San Diego to work with the quarterback.
It’s paying off. Through four practices, Coleman has caught four passes and dropped only one, making him one of the most-targeted receivers in camp.
“It’s priceless,” Coleman said. “That’s time you can’t get back. Those reps count, and that goes into him trusting me.”
When Payton looks at Coleman, he sees shades of Colston. It’s not difficult to make that comparison when simply looking at their bios. The veteran came into the league as a seventh-round pick, Coleman as an undrafted free agent. Colston stands 6-foot-4; Coleman is 6-6. Neither likes to talk much.
“I thought I was a quiet guy until I met him,” Coleman joked.
But it goes deeper than that. Payton thinks both players take a cerebral approach to the game and have similar styles.
Coleman is aware of how fortunate he is to have a resource like Colston and isn’t afraid to seek out the veteran’s advice. It’s not uncommon to see Coleman run off the field after a play or series and chat Colston up about how he would have approached a play or situation.
“Since I got here from Day One, Colston and I have been talking about things on and off the field,” Coleman said. “And I’m grateful for that.”
Some have questioned how the Saints will replace Graham, particularly in the red zone, where Brees would often fire the ball to his biggest target. There shouldn’t be much concern. The formula isn’t complicated: If he makes the team, Coleman can be that guy.
He’s a big, imposing target. He can use his body to shield off defenders and give himself adequate space to catch the ball. Those kind of skills pay off in the red zone, where things get congested.
“As you’re a quarterback throwing a slant or throwing an in-cut, that radius is a bigger target,” Payton said. “I think that’s one of his strengths.”
Those long arms also give Coleman the ability to carry multiple sets of pads.
But if he keeps making catches, it won’t be long before he no longer has to use them for dirty work.