Photos: Panthers vs. Saints pregame and game action _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints wide receiver Nick Toon (88) hauls in a pass during warmups before the New Orleans Saints meet the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It felt like a tease.

For years, fans of the New Orleans Saints heard stories and whispers about the feats and attributes of little-seen and little-heard-from wide receiver Nick Toon. Every year, he somehow figured into the mix at receiver, and every year ended the way it started: with Toon mostly behind the scenes.

To outside observers, at least, Toon was more of an idea than a tangible asset that was visibly helping the team. The 2014 season started the same way, and it appeared he was destined to end another season in the shadows.

After spending his rookie season on injured reserve, Toon caught four passes for 68 yards in 2013 as a second-year pro, then spent eight for the first 10 games of the 2014 season on injured reserve. It wasn’t until injuries robbed the Saints of depth at wide receiver that he was finally given a chance to play.

He broke out — or at least showed glimmers of his potential — by catching 17 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown.

Getting the opportunity to be on the field and serve as a regular member of the wide receiver rotation were all Toon needed to start cashing in on his potential. His confidence grew each week he was given the opportunity to play and, throughout the rest of the week, he felt he made great growth in practice.

“I feel like I’ve grown both mentally and physically and continue to make great strides in becoming a better player and better receiver,” he said. “I learned a lot this season. Got the opportunity to go out there and contribute a little bit and definitely grew as a player. That’s what it’s all about.”

With the wound still fresh on New Orleans’ disappointing 7-9 season, it’s likely difficult to see the silver linings in the future. Changes are needed at several spots, with both the roster and coaching staff, before this team can compete for Super Bowl titles. But one thing that might be worth getting excited about is the young corps of receivers the Saints have acquired and developed over the past few years.

Along with Toon, first-round pick Brandin Cooks (53 catches, 550 yards, three touchdowns) was beginning to come on before landing on injured reserve with a thumb injury in November. And Kenny Stills (63 catches, 931 yards, three touchdowns) took a big step toward becoming a more complete receiver in his second season.

Further down the depth chart, the coaching staff is excited about the potential of undrafted rookies Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman, both of whom finished the season on the 53-man roster.

Like Toon once was, both Jones and Coleman are more ideas than proven concepts to outside observers. But coach Sean Payton watched them come along in practice and is excited about the future of the position.

“I like the work ethic of this group,” he said last month. “It’s a good group of young receivers when you look at (Coleman), Seantavius and then Cooks. There are a few of those guys.”

It might take time for the young players to come together and develop into the core of the position, pushing stalwarts like Marques Colston aside, but there’s reason to hope a few of these guys could develop into contributors.

Late in the year, Toon looked the part of a player who should be ready to take the next step, and Cooks and Stills should continue to get better as they mature. For long shots like Jones and Coleman, Toon said the key is to find the positives in a frustrating situation and look for ways to grow.

“Whenever you’re not playing, it’s frustrating,” Toon said. “I tried to use that time in a positive manner in terms of learning from the guys that were playing and trying to grow mentally and be better in practice every day.

“There’s a lot of great players in this league. This is the best of the best. Things are not always going to go as planned, but you got to keep working and be ready when your opportunity comes.”

If the Saints are lucky, a few of these guys will force the issue this offseason.