Saints long on capable receivers but short on game-breaking speed

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Lil'Jordan Humphrey
Lil’Jordan Humphrey (#84) showed off his size and strength on a touchdown catch against the Vikings in the Saints preseason opener (Photo: Parker Waters).

Wide receiver is a position to watch this pre-season when it comes to the New Orleans Saints. Quality receivers are battling for roster spots and playing time but most lack the speed defenses dread.

Star wide receiver Michael Thomas can make a case as the best in the NFL at his position, and the Saints now pay him like he is.

The second round draft selection in 2016 was noted in my Draft Day Report as a prospect with great ball skills who was well-built, tough and dependable. We knew then that the Ohio State product can run well after the catch but lacks elite speed. Thomas went to the combine that year and ran a decent 4.57 time in the 40-yard dash. For a big receiver like Thomas, his speed is good enough but he maximizes his strengths to play at an All-Pro level.

It makes sense that the Saints would want some field-stretching speed to complement Thomas. The two prime candidates are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to age and experience.

Ted Ginn Jr. still runs in the 4.40 range, and the 34-year old was the only real deep threat last season for New Orleans. He should resume that role this season. There may not be another option.

Ex-LSU track sprinter Cyril Grayson is probably the fastest man on the team. He has shown good hands and burst to blaze past defensive backs on deep routes. If he can beat out rookie Deonte Harris and veteran cornerback Marcus Sherels to be the team’s primary return man specialist, Grayson will stick on the 53-man roster but that may be a tough ask considering the competition. Sherels is a proven commodity in the return game, and New Orleans is a Super Bowl contender that values experience.

The rave of training camp so far is rookie Emmanuel Butler, the wideout from Northern Arizona who has really shown he can get open and catch the football consistently. The big-bodied target has shown excellent ball skills.

Butler did not run at the NFL combine, and the best speed for him other than his pro-day effort (around 4.50) was a 4.60. He runs very close to what Thomas has posted and about the same or a little faster than Saints Hall of Famer-to-be Marcus Colston, a player to whom Butler is now compared frequently.

Simmie Cobbs Jr. is another big receiver who was rated my No. 9 wideout in my 2018 draft guide but went undrafted. I had a speed on Cobbs of 4.62 before he went to the combine to post a 4.64 time. The lack of good deep speed is what hurt his draft chances.

Size, quickness, fine route running ability and good balance are strengths of Cobbs, who missed the 2016 season at Indiana with an ankle injury. Against Ohio State as a junior, Cobbs had 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. I think when he entered the draft, the redshirt junior could have used another year of college experience since he was still a bit raw. Cobbs has shown flashes of ability in camp so far after not sticking last year with the Redskins.

Lil’Jordan Humphrey, the UDFA out of Texas, was rated my No. 12 wide receiver in this year’s draft, but timed speed was costly to his draft hopes despite great college production. I had Humphrey at 4.70 in the 40 before managed just 4.75 at the combine.

A fine catch-and-run for a touchdown in the Saints’ preseason opener versus the Vikings showed his strengths. Running after the catch and strong ability to fight through contact make Humphrey an intriguing prospect who appears to play faster than his timed speed suggests. I also wrote in my draft guide that his ability to go over the middle and catch in traffic is impressive and that he may be best used as a big slot receiver. However, Humphrey is not quick or sudden and struggles to gain separation.

Tre’Quan Smith, a third round selection in 2018, has shown some separation ability but he is also not a blazer. His 4.49 at the combine equated to average speed for an NFL wide receiver so the UCF product must prove he can be reliable to earn snaps. His rookie season was one filled with inconsistency.

Keith Kirkwood, a second year prospect from Temple, was not invited to the combine but I had a 4.53 speed on him in my draft guide. He didn’t make the active roster out of camp last year but Kirkwood took advantage of his chance to play when the time came.

Savvy receiver Austin Carr was claimed off waivers from New England in 2017 runs in the 4.6 range. It’s a stiff uphill battle for him to make the team this year against more physically gifted competitors at the position.

LSU’s Travin Dural, my 19th rated wide receiver in 2017, posted 4.57 at the combine but the ex-LSU star out of Breaux Bridge plays faster than that.

All of the wideouts mentioned besides the burners (Ginn and Grayson) have obvious strengths with many having great size. Yet the Saints are clearly limited when it comes to deep speed so receivers who can make plays in space and move the chains on third down will have the best chance to make the squad and play.

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