METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints have had 14 training-camp practices and played one preseason game.
But the more work they put in and the closer they get to the regular season, the less clear the depth chart at wide receiver seems to become.
Such is summer life in the NFL as injuries and performances that don’t match expectations occur.
One thing is as clear as ever – All-Pro Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. remained firmly entrenched as the starters. Thomas didn’t miss a beat after a four-day holdout before signing a new five-year $100 million contract and Ginn remains a steady veteran at age 34.
But after that is where the lack of clarity comes into play.
Training camp began with second-year players Keith Kirkwood and Tre’Quan Smith poised to secure the third and fourth spots if they demonstrated improved consistency.
Last season, Smith caught 28 passes for 427 yards and five touchdowns and Kirkwood caught 13 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
Kirkwood practiced with the first team during Thomas’ absence, but was sidelined shortly thereafter by an undisclosed injury and has yet to return. Smith hasn’t done anything to obviously hurt his cause, but he hasn’t stood out either.
The Saints were hopeful that a pair of veterans could step in and stabilize the position. Cameron Meredith was another a year removed from major knee surgery that he had while playing for Chicago two years ago, which plagued him in his first season in New Orleans last season.
But Meredith never showed the pre-injury ability that led the Saints to sign him as a free agent last year and he was released July 29.
Rishard Matthews was signed as a veteran free agent late in the offseason, but was released Saturday and announced his retirement via his Instagram account Monday.
Undrafted rookie Emmanuel Butler stood out in the early days of camp before being sidelined by injury. He missed the preseason opener against Minnesota on Friday but returned to practice Sunday.
“It was a little difficult just because I was so anxious to get out there,” Butler said of missing the opener. “I love the game of football, I love playing. That’s really the only difficult thing about it, just not being able to go out there and try to help my team win.”
Butler, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, showed exceptional pass-catching ability in a variety of forms before being injured, drawing praise from both head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
“I’m somebody that believes that everything happens for a reason,” Butler said. “I tried to just stay strong in my faith, stay focused, make sure that I could get in the playbook as much as I can so that when I got back out here, I was ready to go.”
Another undrafted rookie, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, did little to distinguish himself in training camp before catching a 33-yard touchdown pass from Taysom Hill in the third quarter of the 34-25 loss to the Vikings.
“I was encouraged obviously with the scoring play,” Payton said. “I think he is a smart player. He is aware, he has received a lot of snaps in the slot. He is a big target and yet he is developing. He has a lot of work to do. A play like that gives you a little confidence and you build on that.”
Yet another undrafted rookie, Deonte Harris, missed a few practices because of a hamstring injured, but returned to practice for one day before returning three kickoffs for 90 yards on Friday.
“I was encouraged that he received some snaps because he had a hamstring issue and you have to be careful,” Payton said. “If you’re not careful, a grade one becomes a grade two very quickly if you’re hurried back into the lineup.”
Former LSU track star Cyril Grayson Jr. also is in the mix. He had a 32-yard reception from Teddy Bridgewater on Friday.
“He’s doing well,” Payton said. “He can run. He’s still working. I would say there’s still a development to his game just because of the reps that he hadn’t played in college like most of these guys.”
Another former Tiger, Travin Dural, was re-signed July 30 after having been released in June. He spent last season on injured reserve the season before that on the practice roster as an undrafted free agent.
Third-year veteran Austin Carr and one-year veteran Simmie Cobbs Jr. are also in the mix.