WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Wide receiver Joseph Morgan and cornerback Patrick Robinson arrived to The Greenbrier for the start of the Saints’ training camp in somewhat similar boats.
Both had been sidelined for almost a year while rehabbing serious knee injuries, and both were relegated to watching their units largely succeed (the offense gained the fourth-most yards in the NFL last season; the defense held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards and points). Their job at camp is to show they can fit back in.
Each player has a long way to go. Saturday marked merely the second training camp practice. But that was enough to detect the Saints’ palpable belief that Robinson and Morgan still have the tools to contribute — even if Robinson is further along than Morgan.
A first-round draft pick in 2010, Robinson has been through two unforgiving seasons. Quarterbacks consistently beat him in 2012 while he manned one of the outside spots on a defense that surrendered the most yards in NFL history under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and he stood out as someone who struggled on a team whose ambitions were derailed by the one-year suspension of coach Sean Payton following the bounty scandal.
Then, after he was demoted and moved inside with the arrival of Keenan Lewis in 2013, Robinson suffered a season-ending patella injury 11/2 games into the season.
Yet those bad memories seemed sweetly distant Saturday, when for the second day in a row he split time at the outside spot opposite Lewis with veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, acquired in free agency this offseason.
He backpedaled and changed directions smoothly. He ran confidently. In his best sequence, during an 11-on-11 drill late Saturday morning, he broke up back-to-back passes. On one, he leapt over 6-foot-6 rookie wide receiver Brandon Coleman to bat a pass out of his hands, even though Robinson was positioned behind his towering opponent. On the next snap, Robinson swatted away a pass to Charles Hawkins, a wide receiver on the bubble.
Neither Hawkins nor Coleman are stars. And the quarterback throwing to them was second-year man Ryan Griffin, who’s vying to back up Drew Brees.
Still, as he lined up with the first team, Robinson cut the figure of someone who belonged.
“He looks great to me,” Ryan said. “(It’s) like he never had any trouble, any knee problems at all.”
Posting an astounding 37.9 yards per catch and three touchdowns on 10 receptions in 2012, he had every right to expect he’d be the Saints’ deep threat last year. But then he tore the meniscus and partially tore the ACL in his left knee at an intrasquad scrimmage last August, and he spent the rest of the season recovering while the Saints’ passing game finished No. 2 in the NFL.
Morgan opened training camp in subtler fashion than Robinson. On Saturday, for example, he stretched, participated in early catching drills, and then mostly observed.
But Friday was certainly a milestone. Morgan elicited the first loud roar from the stands at The Greenbrier’s practice fields — as well as a high-pitched “Go, Joe Mo!” — when he soared up the right sideline and hauled in a deep ball that would’ve been a score in a game.
He later securely fielded high-hanging punts from Thomas Morstead, alternating in the drill with wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the rookie first-round draft selection.
Morgan’s scaled-back participation level a day later wasn’t any cause for concern, wide receivers coach Henry Ellard assured.
“We’d rather be safe than sorry, so I’m trying to bring him along at a gradual pace,” Ellard said of Morgan, who also sat out his rookie year in 2011 with a preseason knee injury. “You’ve just got to make sure you take baby steps, and that way you don’t have any setbacks.”
Regardless, in trying to keep up with roster definites at receiver such as Cooks, veteran Marques Colston and second-year man Kenny Stills — and in attempting to keep pace with remaining probables Robert Meachem and Nick Toon — Morgan counts on a key fact. This is his fourth camp with the Saints, and that familiarity with the offense can only help.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Ellard said. “You’re here, you know it, you’ve seen it and been a part of it.”