Two weeks ago at the start of organized team activities, the novelty of Cyril Grayson was still fresh.
Saints coach Sean Payton was relatively impressed with the third-year wideout — repeating versions of “He runs exceptionally well” four times in a short soundbite. Still plenty is unknown about the LSU athlete who strictly ran track in college and hadn’t played a competitive regular- season football game at any level since 2011.
But now, with the three weeks of OTAs complete, reality is starting to set in. New Orleans returned each of its top six true wide receivers from a year ago, upgraded from Ben Watson to Jared Cook at tight end while retaining their second and third options in Josh Hill and Dan Arnold. And don’t forget about tailback Alvin Kamara, who more than doubled the number of catches from anyone on the Saints roster not named “Michael Thomas” a year ago with 81.
‘The Truth According to Ted Ginn Jr.’ is an interesting web of tales.
So, as great as the prospect of Grayson’s story sounds — the hometown kid who decided against college football, was cut from four other NFL teams and finally stuck with the Saints — how can he make it happen, while competing against five additional wideouts the team has brought in to compete during camp this summer?
“There’s certain plays (where Grayson stands out), and then there’s other plays you realize ‘Man, it’s going to take a while,’ ” Payton said after Tuesday’s portion of OTAs open to the media. “The interesting and exciting element is his ability to run, and today, you saw a couple of flash plays.
“I still think he’s got an uphill battle and one where he knows he’s going to have to work on the details of being a receiver.”
As Payton mentioned, Grayson showed flashes of pro caliber talent Tuesday. Most notably toward the end of practice, with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, the speedy Rummel product broke free along the back of the end zone and snagged a touchdown grab, as effortlessly as if he were a seasoned pro.
Those bright moments where he’s found opportunities to shine, Grayson said, have come from increased attention while working with coaches on basic techniques. Then, his speed does the rest.
“I know I can improve on a lot on details, just seeing the guys and learning the guys who I’m going against while trying to play as fast as I can,” he said. “The thing I want to focus on most is making sure I’m real efficient getting off press coverage. If I can do that, I can set myself in a good position.
“I can give myself a shot.”
But some early evidence in how the Saints could use Grayson most came when he wasn’t seeing offensive action. During large stints of the offensive drills, the LSU alum was off to the side, working on kick catching drills — seeing and judging the ball flight more quickly, making smooth catches and where and how to make that first elusive step.
After losing wideout and return specialist Tommylee Lewis to free agency this offseason, the team signed unrestricted free agent Marcus Sherels from the Vikings this offseason with a clear intention of improving the team’s kick return game for a team that, despite strengths in nearly every facet of the game, didn’t score a kick return touchdown a year ago.
Taysom Hill and Kamara carried a heavy load of the kick return duties a year ago, but Sherels comes to New Orleans with proven return game credentials with five special teams touchdowns since 2012, only two behind active league-leader Darren Sproles. He also returned six punts 20 yards or more a year ago, to the Saints’ zero.
Imagine the idea of having to decide between kicking toward two of Kamara, Sherels or Grayson, and the prospect of teams picking the relatively unknown commodity, as long as he can make his first NFL regular- season roster. If he could get a couple blocks and find a seam, that sideline begins to look like the closing stretch of a 400-meter race, where few have more experience than Grayson.
“Can he stand out and be a special teams player? We’ve had guys who have done that who weren't as far along at their position,” Payton said.
And Grayson, just eager to finally stick on an active roster come mid-September, is more than willing to make his name there, if that’s what it takes.
“I’m just trying to do everything I can on special teams, cause that’s going to be the most important part of the game for me, at least for now,” he said. “Special teams gets you on the team and keeps you on the team, and I’m focused on that.”