The talk of the team — and the town, to one degree or another — is the return of New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was present at practice this week for the first time since September.
But while Thomas was sidelined with his toe injury last season, the conversation shifted to rookies Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed, who both had breakout seasons.
Even then, Thomas bought into the potential surrounding his position mates. And even now, Thomas said he still supports them as he tries to make his own competitive return.
“Those are my guys,” Thomas said. “They’re two California guys. Of course Chris is from Ohio State, too.
“Before I got my injury, I was always rolling with those guys. We’re kind of like the ‘Big Three.’ Or whatever. I wouldn’t say ‘Big Three’ because we have other receivers and everyone will contribute that has to contribute. But those are two rookies that I took under my wing and was involved with.”
Thomas is also a California and Ohio State product. Instant bond, despite the experience difference.
While Olave and Shaheed were NFL rookies in 2022, Thomas was embarking on his seventh season. Thomas started in the Saints’ first three games before his injury, then didn’t play another snap all season. He finished with 16 receptions on 22 targets for 171 yards and three touchdowns.
Olave, a first-round draft pick, tallied 72 receptions on 119 targets for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games. He became just the third player — including Thomas — in franchise history to crack 1,000 yards receiving in his debut season.
Shaheed was more of a surprise. As an undrafted free agent from Weber State, he got the nod for the first time in Week 6 and managed to turn his first offensive touch into a score. He did the same with his second touch and played through the rest of the season as a result. Shaheed caught 28 of his 34 targets for 488 yards and two touchdowns. He also had four rushes for 57 yards and a touchdown.
“To see their successes always puts a smile on my face,” Thomas said. “I’m just finding where I can add value and help them be successful.”
He’s not the only one.
Quarterback Derek Carr has implemented a new rule for what is now his offense. If he and a receiver do not connect on a pass, they will redo it, either immediately or after practice. It’s tougher now with the time restraints of preseason workouts, but it’s something he’ll enforce more during the regular season.
"It's getting those reps again to where it’s just, 'I feel perfect. I feel great about it,’ ” Carr said. “Then, on Sunday, I've already done it, I've already corrected it.
“You try and complete them all, which has never been done, but you try your best to do it. Always striving for that perfection is what I believe in. And knowing you will probably never get there. But you're gonna wake up every morning trying.”
That rule could be a tall task considering the depth on the Saints’ 90-man roster — 12 wide receivers, to be exact. They are Thomas, Olave, Shaheed, A.T. Perry (rookie), Malik Flowers (rookie), Shaq Davis (rookie), Kawaan Baker (second year in NFL), Kirk Merritt (fourth year), Bryan Edwards (fourth year), Tre’Quan Smith (sixth year), Keith Kirkwood (sixth year) and James Washington (sixth year).
“Look,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “I think there’s going to be some good competition in that receiver room.”