The New Orleans Saints learned last season that the NFL stage wasn't too big for undrafted rookie receiver Marquez Callaway.
After claiming a spot on the 53-man roster because of what he could add on special teams, Callaway proceeded to add offensive contributor to his resume. And now, with a less restrictive offseason and growing knowledge of the playbook, he is expected to add another growth spurt.
"This camp wouldn't be the proper evaluation, but last season would be," Coach Sean Payton said Friday. "He played a pretty significant role for us down the stretch when we had some injuries, and I felt like he kind of came into his own a little bit.
"You saw him in each of those games toward the end of the season gaining confidence, playing well. Now early on (in training camp), he's doing the same thing but I think we saw growth last year and I'm encouraged with where he's at."
Callaway was more than a pleasant surprise. He turned out to be key for a team that had its top three receivers injured at some point in 2020, and totaled 213 yards on 21 catches, 122 yards on 11 punt returns, 94 yards on four kickoff returns and two fumble recoveries off punts.
"Probably, we took little baby steps," Callaway said. "The Chargers game (a 30-27 victory in overtime, with Callaway catching four passes for 64 yards, and returning six punts for 69 and two kickoffs for 57), that was my first time actually getting a lot of offense and special teams playing. And then the following game was the Carolina game (eight catches on 10 targets for 75 yards, all career highs) where I had a lot of offensive time.
"Just being out there, seeing everything, being in everything in all aspects of the game, that was a big boost to my momentum, a big boost to my confidence level."
The baby steps began with learning from players who already were in the program.
"Just going out every day, trying to improve on everything," Callaway said. "Whether that's the playbook, whether that's running routes better, just learning. Because we had a lot of older guys, like (quarterback) Drew (Brees) was phenomenal with trying to teach us and learn everything, (receiver) Mike (Thomas) obviously, (receiver) Tre'Quan (Smith), (receiver/returner) Deonte (Harris) was helping out a lot. So a lot of the guys who had been here kind of helped me a lot, and that's what I hope to do, that's what we hope to do with the young guys that came in this year."
It's odd to hear the 23-year-old talk about mentoring "young" teammates. But with Thomas sidelined by ankle surgery, Callaway's three starts (in 11 games) is tied for the second-most behind Smith for a returning Saints receiver, and his 267 offensive snaps as a rookie is second-most on the roster for a returning receiver, also behind Smith.
"I feel a lot more comfortable than I was last year," he said. "A year in, a year in this offense, a year learning from everybody. I'm still learning new things and hopefully, the things I'm learning, I can teach to the young guys.
"They ask questions and they're teaching us new things about them. It's just trying to learn everybody. During minicamp and the summer, we kind of got the taste of everybody but now that the pads are coming on and we're actually seeing what everybody can do, I think that will be a big boost to everybody."
Perhaps the biggest boost for Callaway will come from increased knowledge. The playbook is where he believes he is most improved.
"The playbook is very complex and it's a lot, and if you don't understand, you're not going to play," he said. "Coach (Payton) says that all the time, C.J. (senior offensive assistant/receivers coach Curtis Johnson) says it and it's pretty much known. So the young guys are busting their butts learning it, I'm still getting better learning it. So just learning the playbook, being more comfortable and just trying to go out there and play."