Michael Thomas is back, but Saints still have depth questions at receiver and running back

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Rishard Matthews, Kayvow Webster
Saints wide receiver Rishard Matthews, (#12) eludes cornerback Kayvon Webster (#39) during training camp at the team’s practice facility in Metairie, La. (Photo: Parker Waters).

METAIRIE – The deal that the New Orleans Saints and All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas agreed to Wednesday makes sense for everyone involved.

For Thomas, it obviously makes sense after he agreed to a reported five-year deal for $100 million. The former second-round pick had greatly outperformed his rookie contract by catching more passes in his first three seasons than any other receiver had in the same time frame, and he got the $20 million per year that he had insisted upon, making him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.

For the Saints it made sense to get the deal done quickly because there are other exceptional receivers – most notably Atlanta’s Julio Jones – who also are working on new contracts. The longer Thomas’ holdout dragged on the better the chances were that Jones or someone else was going to sign a deal that would raise the bar for the highest-paid wide receiver and Thomas’ demand could have gone up accordingly.

Now the Falcons have to deal with Thomas’ deal eclipsing the previous high of $18 per year for the Browns’ Odell Beckham Jr., rather than the Saints having to react to Jones perhaps getting $20 million or more per year.

Thomas’ training-camp holdout was of no consequence. He missed just five practices, a mere three of which were in pads. The missed time won’t inhibit Thomas in any way and as lagniappe it gave more and better quality reps to younger receivers as New Orleans continues its search for dependable receivers behind Thomas and fellow starter Ted Ginn Jr.

We know the answer won’t be Cameron Meredith after he was released Monday, never having fully recovered from a severe knee injury that he suffered while playing for Chicago two years ago, a recovery that was in its early stages when the Saints signed him as a free agent during last offseason.

Maybe Keith Kirkwood or Tre’Quan Smith – or both of them – will emerge in their second season. Maybe not. It’s too soon to tell.

Undrafted rookie Emmanuel Butler had an eye-opening first few practices before leaving Tuesday’s practice with an apparent, undisclosed injury. Even if the injury is nothing serious, Butler’s good start doesn’t guarantee anything. Smith was a star in training camp and the preseason last year before having an adequate but uninspiring rookie regular season.

On Tuesday the Saints brought back former LSU receiver and Breaux Bridge native Travin Dural, but he doesn’t appear to be what they’re looking for in a productive receiver for the regular season.

After seeing Dural for two years, first as an undrafted free agent who made the practice roster in 2017, then on injured reserve last season, the Saints released him in June. At the time they had it in the back of their minds that they might bring Dural back if the breakdown of the roster evolved to a point where doing so made more sense.

That time came amid Thomas’ holdout and Meredith’s release. Head coach Sean Payton said Tuesday that Dural’s return was a byproduct of having just 10 receivers practicing.

Thomas’s return could hasten another release for Dural, but Butler’s availability going forward will also be a factor.

Veteran Rishard Matthews, signed late in the offseason, is a candidate to make the team and bring more experience to the unit than most of the other candidates.

Otherwise it’s hard to see any of the other receivers – Austin Carr, Simmie Cobbs Jr., Lil’ Jordan Humphrey, former LSU track star Cyril Grayson Jr., or undrafted rookie Deonte Harris – evolving into someone the team counts on beginning Sept. 9 when the Saints play host to the Houston Texans in the regular-season opener.

Now with the Thomas holdout over and the team taking its first off day of camp Wednesday, this is a good time to look at another position on offense that seems to have suddenly become a concern.

Former Raiders and Vikings running back Latavius Murray was signed during the offseason as a replacement for Mark Ingram II, who signed with Baltimore, as Alvin Kamara’s sidekick.

But Murray hasn’t practiced for the last two days and there has been no explanation for that. Meanwhile the Saints reportedly worked out Theo Riddick and Alfred Morris before signing former Tulane and Washington Redskins running back Robert Kelley on Tuesday.

New Orleans had worked out the native son last month and passed on him because of his poor conditioning. To Kelley’s credit, he went to work and lost weight (eight pounds by Kelley’s count, 15 by Payton’s), earning a second chance.

Maybe the Saints are just looking to upgrade the third halfback position, or maybe Javorius Allen landing on IR created a need for another body or maybe they’re just doing their due diligence in “churning the roster” as former general manager Randy Mueller used to say.

But looking at three prospects at the same position, including one who let himself get out of shape with training camp looming, suggests there’s more going on here, that there are concerns about the depth behind Kamara.

The Saints return to practice Thursday and the facility will be abuzz about the return of Michael Thomas.

But as he gets back to work, Payton and his staff still have a lot of work to do figuring out which receivers they can count on behind Thomas and Ginn and which running backs they can count on behind Kamara.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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