Marcus Murphy knows exactly what he was drafted to do.
The former Missouri star spent most of the draft process as an afterthought in a deep running back class, a group that included plenty of every-down backs who might someday develop into workhorses for an NFL team.
The Saints drafted Murphy for a different purpose altogether. After losing Travaris Cadet in free agency, New Orleans had an opening for a return man and a third-down back, a position that takes on much more importance in the Saints offense than it does in most offenses around the NFL.
Murphy made his name in that role at Missouri.
“I just want to come in and be a playmaker,” Murphy said. “Special teams, offense, you know, running back, slot, however they need me. Whatever they want me to be able to do.”
Murphy, at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, was never Missouri’s primary back. Instead, the Tigers did whatever they could to get the ball to Murphy in space —- handoffs to the perimeter, screens out of the backfield and lining him up in the slot.
A skill set immediately reminds Saints fans of Darren Sproles, a player New Orleans sorely missed last season.
And Murphy understands that some fans might expect him to be Darren Sproles from the day he steps on the field. In fact, he spent a lot of his time at Missouri watching Sproles and trying to pick up on what made the former Saints’ third-down option so dangerous.
“Those comparisons are good,” Murphy said. “I watch a lot of film on Darren Sproles, and just the other backs that have come through New Orleans. It’s just something that I pride myself in.”
A year ago, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Cadet all caught more than 29 passes from the running back position, but none brought the same explosive element of Sproles, who caught more than 70 passes in each of his three seasons in New Orleans. And although Sean Payton said filling that role might not have been a priority at the beginning of free agency, the addition of former Bills running back C.J. Spiller addressed that need.
“I would say there is a scheme that we want to run and a defense and offense we want to play,” Payton said. “C.J. Spiller, for instance, was not necessarily on our radar at the beginning of free agency and then very quickly into it he became someone that was. So that will change a little about where we go directionally.”
Spiller’s presence means Murphy has time to develop. Expecting Murphy to be the kind of dynamic presence in his first season that Sproles became in New Orleans is probably unrealistic. Sproles himself took three seasons in San Diego to become a real factor. He didn’t produce more than 200 yards from scrimmage until his fourth year with the Chargers.
At this point in his career, the Saints would likely be happy if their seventh-round pick can make the 53-man roster and give New Orleans a dynamic return specialist and a player capable of spelling C.J. Spiller in the third-down role.
Murphy’s best shot as a rookie is in the return game. In four seasons at Missouri — a shoulder injury cost him his entire sophomore season — Murphy returned five kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns, and he led the Southeastern Conference in kickoff returns last year, averaging 29.7 yards.
“Special teams is big, just like offense and defense,” Murphy said. “That’s a big part of my game, just being a returner. I did it in college, all five years, and that’s something I just have experience in, so I knew it would play a big role.”
Until Jalen Saunders took over the role late in the season, the Saints’ return game offered little threat last season.
Murphy might remedy that. Already comfortable returning kicks and punts, Murphy sees his experience as an asset.
“I like them both,” Murphy said. “Punt return is a little bit more (difficult), you have to judge the ball, it takes a little bit more experience. Kickoffs, you know it’s a little easier to catch, but you kind of want to catch both on the run.”
What he does after he catches it could earn Murphy a roster spot.