METAIRIE, La. -- It’s not just the new uniform playing tricks on you.
New Orleans Saints receiver Marquez Callaway -- who recently switched from jersey No. 12 to No. 1 -- has truly looked the part of a No. 1 receiver this summer while Michael Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith have been sidelined by injuries.
Callaway was Taysom Hill's go-to guy on the Saints’ opening drive of the preseason, catching a 10-yard pass on third-and-9, a 28-yarder on the next play, then a 23-yarder on third-and-7.
His performance matched what we have seen on an almost daily basis in training camp, where Callaway has been a frequent target of both Hill and Jameis Winston – including near the goal line -- even while spending most of his time being covered by Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Not bad for an undrafted second-year pro from Tennessee, who caught just 21 passes for 213 yards and no touchdowns last year.
“Quez has been killing it out there,” said fellow Saints receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey. “He’s believing in himself … [and] I don’t think there’s a guy in there who don’t believe it with him. He’s just got the confidence, and he keeps getting better every day.”
It’s hard to proclaim Callaway as a surefire fantasy football breakout candidate just yet, since Smith returned to practice Tuesday after a two-week absence and Thomas could return early in the season after recovering from ankle surgery.
But there is no doubt that the 6-foot-2, 204-pounder will remain heavily in the mix even when the Saints are at full strength.
Humphrey is one of several Saints teammates and coaches who have pointed out that Callaway’s confidence and poise have stood out as much as his playmaking ability. Newly signed veteran Chris Hogan said he is impressed by how Callaway “never seems to have a bad day” and confidently moves on to the next play or series if he ever does have a miscue.
Just listen to how Callaway talked about being a mentor to the “younger guys,” as if he has been around a lot longer than he actually has.
“Show’s still gonna go on. So you gotta go out there thinking you’re gonna be the No. 1 guy. Even the younger guys when they get their chance, we’re telling them that we’re down numbers, you gotta step up,” Callaway said. “That’s what they’ve been doing, that’s what I’ve been doing. We help each other out.”
This isn’t the first time Callaway has risen to a challenge. Last season, when both Thomas and former Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders were sidelined for a game, Callaway delivered with eight catches for 75 yards.
“Quez is one of those guys that when he's had the opportunity, he’s stepped up to it,” Hill said.
"Quez has been killing it out there. He's believing in himself ... [and] I don't think there's a guy in there who don't believe it with him." Lil'Jordan Humphrey on Marquez Callaway
“Man, we saw this out of him a year ago,” Saints coach Sean Payton added. “I don’t know that anyone was truly paying that much attention, but if you went back and looked at some of those games, we began to see that growth and confidence from him last year. And I think that’s paid off for him in training camp now.”
Perhaps general manager Mickey Loomis was onto something when he suggested at the start of camp that, “I think we like our group of receivers probably more than some of the media guys do.”
Because Callaway isn’t the only unheralded young Saints receiver impressing this summer. Third-year pro Deonte Harris, who was a first-team All-Pro kick returner as a rookie, also looks poised to play a bigger role on offense (although he could face a suspension after a summer DUI arrest).
Although Harris is just 5-foot-6, 170 pounds, he has terrific deep-field speed and short-area quickness. Winston, especially, seems to have developed a nice rapport with Harris after they spent a lot of time working out together this offseason.
Second-year pro Juwan Johnson, who switched from receiver to tight end this offseason, has been another of the most impressive playmakers in camp.
“That’s what we’ve tried to instill into everybody, that Coach trusts us enough to not bring anyone else in,” Callaway said. “So that says a lot about the guys that are in the room. If coaches think that and coaches know that, I have no doubt that we do. I trust the guys, they trust us, and whatever needs to happen, we’re gonna get it done.”
One of the most interesting things about New Orleans’ collection of young talent is how many guys were either undrafted (Callaway, Harris, Johnson, Humphrey, Tommylee Lewis, Jake Lampman, Easop Winston Jr.) or picked in the last round (Kawaan Baker).
Outside of Thomas and Smith, the Saints have only two veterans competing for roster spots: Hogan, Kevin White and Ty Montgomery.
Hogan, who was undrafted himself in 2011 before carving out a nice career, said it quickly dawned on him that he was surrounded by so many kindred spirits.
“When I got here and started to learn their stories and where they came from and where they started, you know, I love it,” Hogan said. “Not that drafted guys aren’t hungry. But undrafted guys, they got something to prove every single year. And they came into this league, had to earn a roster spot, really had to grind that out.
“And to be in that room, you can tell there’s a bunch of guys that are hungry and eager to make a name for themselves.”