Watch out Shayne Graham — the Saints have a kicking competition.
The Saints signed Dustin Hopkins, a former sixth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 2013 NFL draft, on Tuesday. Hopkins was put on the 10-person practice squad, which is rare for kickers.
Graham has converted 19 of 22 field goals this season, but missed one in each of the past two games.
Hopkins, 24, worked out last Tuesday with the Saints, along with a group of free agent kickers.
“He opened some eyes the other day when he kicked,” Payton said. “He did a good job.”
Asked if the signing explains the Saints’ interest in him, Hopkins, a Houston native, said, “I hope it does. Who knows, but I’m glad to be here.”
The kicking job is still Graham’s to lose, but Hopkins’ signing demonstrates how situations change fast in the NFL.
Exactly one year ago, the Saints signed Graham and released Garrett Hartley whose 40-yard field goal in 2010 ended an NFC Championship game win against Minnesota.
Hopkins, who played at Florida State, spent last season in Buffalo on injured reserve (groin). Hopkins said he was enduring rehab for his injury “up into a couple of weeks ago.”
The abductor injury on his kicking leg forced him to learn more from watching than playing, a scenario he hopes to flip-flop in the coming months. Maybe weeks or days.
The Saints were his first — and only — NFL tryout as a free agent kicker.
The Saints employed defensive lineup changes in the secondary and at receiver in Monday’s win at Chicago.
Asked Wednesday if the changes are permanent, at least through the last two games of the 2014 regular season, Payton said it will depend on daily practice performances and potential matchups.
“What varies week to week are the personnel packages that you want to have defensively,” Payton said. “(For example) to defend Atlanta, a lot of time they’ll be in a lot of three receiver sets and ... that affects what you want to do (on defense).”
One of the changes was third-year pro Nick Toon starting over veteran Marques Colston.
Toon’s first start of the season started bad, with a fumble after a short catch and run inside the Bears 5 on the first Saints possession.
Quarterback Drew Brees said it’s common to go back to a receiver after a bad play, to make sure they get a chance to recover mentally, but that it wasn’t a concern with Toon at Chicago.
“Any player, after so early in a game, I think you’re always thinking about getting them back in the mix, making sure he maintains his confidence,” Brees said of Toon, who finished with four catches for 43 yards. “(But) it’s not something I worry about with him or other guys.”
Defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle), left tackle Terron Armstead (neck) and strong safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday for the Saints. For Atlanta, receivers Roddy White (knee), Julio Jones and Harry Douglas (foot) led a list of Falcons to miss Wednesday’s practice.
The receiving trio is the Falcons’ top three receiving leaders. Overall, they have caught 201 passes for 2,671 yards and 15 touchdowns. By comparison, quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown for 4,112 yards and 27 TDs.
Guard Jon Asamoah (back) and safety William Moore (foot) also missed practice for the Falcons.