Nick Toon has never entered an NFL offseason with this much opportunity.
Buried on the depth chart for three seasons, Toon finds himself staring at a wide-open path to playing time, cleared by the offseason departures of Kenny Stills, Jimmy Graham and Robert Meacham, all as Toon enters the final season of the four-year rookie deal he signed in 2012.
By virtue of three seasons in New Orleans and a six-game stretch filling in for Brandin Cooks at the end of the 2014 season, Toon seems to have a good shot at the No. 3 role behind Cooks and Marques Colston this fall, if he can hold off a hard-charging group of young players and free agents.
But Toon said he’s not thinking about the big-picture personal implications of the Saints offseason.
“Pressure is not something that I’ve ever worried about or thought about. I just try to be consistent,” Toon said. “Anything outside of that is out of my control, so do what you’ve got to do to put yourself in the best position for things to work out.”
Toon, who spent his first three years at the X receiver spot, has moved to the Z in the Saints’ base offense. Toon will line up off the ball more often, and he’ll be lining up on the strong side of the formation, as opposed to the weak side. Toon, at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has become one of New Orleans’ better run blockers at receiver, an ability that can come in handy as an extra blocker outside the tight end.
And when the Saints aren’t operating out of their base formations, Toon can still move around the formation to wherever the Saints need him.
“You know, I’ve been at X for a lot of my career, but Z is still playing receiver,” Toon said. “We have so many different formations and personnel groupings, it really is just go out and play. Anybody can be in any spot on the field.”
Toon, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2012, spent a long time waiting for his shot. Forced on injured reserve as a rookie in 2012, Toon played in just eight games in 2013 and saw action in two of the Saints’ first 10 games last year. A regular role didn’t come until Cooks went down with a broken thumb.
In the final six weeks of the season, Toon caught 17 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown, prompting optimism that he could develop into a regular this season.
“I felt like he made the most of it, we saw glimpses,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We’ve had the ability to maneuver him around and give him more opportunities that way, and he’s been able to handle it very well. So I’m excited for Nick Toon. He’s got a great opportunity. I think there’s a great fit for him.”
But Toon still has plenty of work to do.
The new crop of Saints receivers may not have the same kind of name-brand recognition it’s possessed in recent years, but the numbers are still there.
Based on the summer workouts open to the media, New Orleans has a good race brewing for the final couple of roster spots at wide receiver. Both Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones have been tagged as potential breakout players by coach Sean Payton, veteran free agent Josh Morgan appears to add a special presence over the middle, Joe Morgan is back in the mix and undrafted free agent R.J. Harris had a couple of eye-popping catches during the team’s mandatory minicamp.
“The competition is what brings out the best in everybody,” Toon said. “I never shy away from any kind of competition. We’ve got a lot of talent in the wide receiver room, and I’m excited about what we’re going to do this year.”
Toon made his own fair share of impressive plays in summer workouts, particularly by using his length to go up and make leaping catches, including a spectacular minicamp grab over rookie cornerback P.J. Williams. In the same practice, Toon also had a drop on a short route, a mishap that turned into a tip-drill interception for the defense.
For Toon, the key is putting it all together. He should have plenty of chances.
“We saw at times last year in practice, even though he’s not receiving reps in the games, certainly we’ve seen his progression, he understands the system well and he’s working hard,” Payton said. “I think the key is just getting snaps, but I think we’ll see his snaps go way up.”