Throughout the 2022 offseason it became increasingly clear that the New Orleans Saints were headed in a different direction at premium positions than in the past. Since 2017, the Saints had owned a total of 21 top-100 draft picks. Of these, only 10 had been invested in what are defined as “premium” positions. That designation applies to the positions that have the greatest opportunity to affect the ball on any play: quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, running back and cornerback.
The wide receiver was a standout focus for the team this offseason, following a 2021 campaign in which the Saints ranked last in the NFL in passing yards and third-lowest in the league in pass attempts. . However, it’s clear there’s a different mindset in New Orleans now.
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Spearheaded by returning All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints added a top-100 pick from the 2014 draft in Jarvis Landry and invested a slew of assets from this year’s draft on first-round pick Chris Olave. These investments in the wide receiver were expected to have a growing impact during the 2022 NFL season. But it took until the fourth quarter of Week 1 to see the potential of the revamped group.
The three receivers combined for 212 receiving yards against the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints’ broad receiving corps never surpassed the mark once in 2021. The new trio almost did it in a single quarter. For Thomas, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for the unit. “I feel like that was just a small sample,” Thomas told us after the win. “If you ask me and the guys in the receiving group, we’d probably say we didn’t start until the second half.”
The group’s additions didn’t stop at the players on the field, either. The Saints dropped veteran wide receivers coach Curtis “CJ” Johnson. To fill the void, they hired Kodi Burns from the college ranks. After spending years helping develop several draft picks with Auburn and Tennessee, Burns has been highly praised within the Saints’ facility.
Landry, a nine-year NFL pro, told me what he thinks makes Burns a unique talent: “Kodi has definitely been taking me back to the details, to the fundamentals of the position,” the receiver said. “Going back to pitches, things to work on as a player. He has been picking up things in my game that I can improve on.”
That’s high praise from an experienced receiver like Landry. And it is not exclusive. Thomas and Olave have also spoken highly of him. I spoke with practice squad catcher Rashid Shaheed, who praised Burns for the closeness and closeness of him. Burns, just 33 years old and a former player, has made it easy for receivers to communicate with him and learn from him.
Wideouts have also highlighted Burns’ process. He has introduced new drills for the group, focused heavily on balance and ball security, and even taken time to emphasize bonding between receivers. Third-year wide receiver Marquez Callaway shared that Burns asked all receivers to share his personal stories with the group.
“We get up and talk about ourselves,” Callaway said. “We talked about where we came from, basically our life journey. How we got here, all the adversity we went through, just tell your story. So I think he wanted us to realize that if we get to know each other instead of going out into the field [as] just someone to come to work with, [we’ll] get to know the person rather than the player.”
It is clear that the approach has worked. The Saints have a lot of mouths to feed with several talented pass receivers on offense. But for New Orleans, approaches like Burns’s, which meld the personal with the professional, can be very helpful. Each catcher is taught responsibilities throughout the lineup. Be it X-receiver, flanker, slot or any other. This allows everyone to understand not only their individual role, but also the roles of those around them.
With the Saints’ increased attention and investment in their wide receiver room, games like this weekend take a hit as well. With running back Alvin Kamara looking like a long shot to see the field, a talented receiving staff goes a long way. Not only does it allow him to produce efficiently through the air, but it also prevents defenses from being able to pack the area with eight or more players. Last week, Kamara only saw one of those defensive looks, which was the 2-point conversion earned on a pass from Jameis Winston to Olave.
Being able to challenge the defenses on all three levels vertically while continuing to stretch them horizontally and force them into smaller nickel packs is a unique challenge to present. One that New Orleans will appreciate during the 2022 season. It hasn’t taken long for all the investments to pay off. And if Thomas is right, there is much more on the way.