WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — The first hint undrafted rookie wide receiver Brandon Coleman got that he wasn’t in college anymore after signing with the Saints was coordinator Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme.
“You just see a lot of people moving all over the place,” Coleman said about a defense that gave up the NFL’s fourth-fewest yards in 2013, and one he struggled to decipher at practices this past offseason. “You see a lot of different players in a lot of different positions on the field — you just have to adjust to it on the fly.”
Add in the fact that Coleman was recovering from a knee injury which limited his production in his final year at Rutgers, and the ingredients for lackluster showings at voluntary organized team activities and a mandatory minicamp were there. They materialized — Coleman dropped multiple catchable balls, was slow cutting in and out of pass routes, and prompted questions about whether he and his imposing 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame could get it together in time to survive training camp.
But then the knee had more time to heal. The notes from film study became more thorough. The coaches’ instructions and orders became easier to understand. And, after training camp practices began on July 25, the drops stopped, and the cuts were faster.
“The more you know, the more comfortable you are — you’re not thinking a lot or thinking as much,” Coleman said following an afternoon practice Monday. “You’re just playing fast. And that’s the key to this game.”
At least for Coleman it is — so far. In OTA and minicamp drills at Saints headquarters in Metairie in May and June, he did not cut the figure of someone who had tied a school record at Rutgers for career receiving touchdowns (20).
He did not resemble someone who in 39 college games had amassed 1,808 yards on just 94 grabs (a gaudy average of 19.2). It seemed he maybe had more to blame than simply his knee for falling out of the draft when he was once projected to go as early as the third round.
But that’s changed in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. Coleman’s consistently hauled in passes thrown in traffic and along the sidelines both in practice and an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday.
He blew past reserve cornerback Rod Sweeting and dove in the end zone to catch a 46-yard touchdown pass in one drill, displaying the straight-line speed with which he often surprised defenders while at Rutgers.
In another, Coleman utilized his eye-opening height and some possession skills by stretching up and pulling down a pass out of the air while being defended by cornerback Corey White, who was in front of the receiver.
It hasn’t been perfect. For example, a pass bounced off his fingertips and was plucked out of the air before it hit the ground for an interception at one point.
That mishap caused Coleman to press his helmet into the grass and punch the turf with his right fist. He knows he can’t afford too many of those while jockeying for the one or two spots at receiver under roster locks Marques Colston, the nine-year veteran; Kenny Stills, in his second season; and rookie first-round draft selection Brandin Cooks.
His competition includes Joseph Morgan, returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for 2013; veteran Robert Meachem, who won Super Bowl XLIV alongside Colston and the Saints; and Nick Toon, preparing for his third season.
The good news for Coleman is that his costly drop had been the exception when the ninth practice of training camp wrapped up Monday — and not the rule.
“He (is a little bit further removed from) an injury his last year at Rutgers,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. “I think he’s a little stronger in the lower body so you see him transitioning a little bit better in and out of his cuts. He’s not laboring as much as he was at minicamp, so he looks stronger.”
Payton explained it was obvious to him Coleman wasn’t bending his knees or transitioning out of routes as sharply as the receiver wanted in offseason workouts. Now, “you just see him further along,” the coach said.
The timing couldn’t be better. New Orleans’ preseason opener at St. Louis is Friday — he and the rest of the receivers on the bubble should land plenty of snaps, and it could be a crucial moment in his audition to latch onto the Saints’ roster.
“I feel a lot better, a lot more smooth, more natural,” Coleman said. “It’s a good thing (Payton) is noticing — it makes me feel good.”