METAIRIE, La. (AP) - A young, unproven receiver will likely find himself on the field this fall for a Saints passing game that has been among the NFL's best since Sean Payton and Drew Brees joined forces in New Orleans in 2006.
Payton and wide receiver coach Henry Ellard, a former standout NFL receiver himself, will spend the next few months determining whether one of two recent draft choices or a host of undrafted free agents on the roster deserve that shot.
"At this point, it's hard to say," Ellard, now in his second season on New Orleans' staff, said after the first practice of minicamp on Tuesday. "We're keeping it wide open and changing the rotation, each and every day at practice and seeing how guys respond in different situations."
The candidates include Kenny Stills, who was drafted in the fifth round of this year's draft out of Oklahoma, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury after being drafted in the fourth round out of Wisconsin.
At 6-foot-4, the same height as Marques Colston, Toon stands out and also has pedigree. His father, Al, was a former All-Pro receiver with the New York Jets. The younger Toon also distinguished himself during 11-on-11 drills at the end of Tuesday's practice, when he made an adjustment and diving catch on a back-shoulder throw deep down the left sideline.
"He has good size. I like that. And length," said Payton, who was suspended in connection with the NFL's bounty probe when Toon joined the team last spring. "It's just a matter of getting settled in and once we get into the pads, establish himself as someone who is consistent."
"We have some young guys at the receiver position," Payton said. "All of those guys are competing for spots and playing time."
Two seasons ago, the Saints' primary receivers were Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson. Meachem signed with San Diego as a free agent in 2012. Henderson became a free agent after last season and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has indicated the club plans to move on without him. That leaves at least one, if not two, receiver spots that will see regular time on the field.
"We've got a great group of young receivers that really all have a chance to make their mark and find a place in that group," Brees said. "Kenny Stills is showing a lot of promise. He's a young, talented guy. All those guys understand that they are going to get some opportunities and they have to make the most of them and see how they can fit into this offense."
Last year, Joe Morgan emerged at the Saints' fourth receiver. He made some spectacular plays, but was inconsistent and limited in the types of routes he ran effectively, Ellard said.
"We know he can run down the field," Ellard said. "But I want him to become that intermediate guy that can get in and out of cuts and still be able to make plays over the middle of the field instead of always just down the field."
Toon, Ellard said, is already ahead of the curve in terms of the precision of his routes.
"His father played the game and I'm pretty sure taught him a little bit," Ellard said, adding that Toon also has "great hands."
Stills' father, also named Kenny, played in the NFL as well, but as a defensive back, which is where Stills played in high school before the Sooners converted him to receiver.
A couple months before the Saints drafted Stills, he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
"Just a smart kid that can run. We love that part because you can't coach speed," Ellard said. "He's adjusting well to what we're doing, picking up on things and eliminating mistakes."
Stills said one of his biggest adjustments was dealing with the speed at which everyone else plays in the NFL.
"It's a fast game at this level," Stills said. "That's kind of the first thing that I learned and saw. But I'm always going to be confident in my speed and my ability to run by people, and hopefully I get that chance to do it in this offense."
Stills said his father warned him about the speed of the NFL, and also advised him that the best way to find his way in the league was to work hard on his own assignments and not get distracted worrying about the pecking order at his position.
"Talking to my dad, it's not about trying to find your spot or thinking about taking somebody's spot or getting on the field right away," Stills said. "For me it's just learning and being able to take advantage of my opportunity. Obviously it's a great opportunity for there to be spots open, but I just want to be able to be ready, that way if they feel like I'm ready to play I'll get in there and play and do the best of my ability."
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