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New Orleans Saints have leaned on young receivers as injuries have accumulated at the position

Undrafted WRs Marquez Callaway, Lil'Jordan Humphrey have made impact this season

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The New Orleans Saints will play nine of their 16 regular-season games in 2020 without receiver Michael Thomas, the NFL record-holder with 149 receptions in 2019.

They've played two without Emmanuel Sanders, the veteran receiver with three Super Bowl appearances on his resume, including a win with Denver in Super Bowl 50.

They've had third-year pro Tre'Quan Smith available, but Smith has been banged up about as often as not – he's had to leave two games with injuries – and didn't practice Wednesday due to an ankle injury.

They've seen Deonte Harris, the All-Pro punt returner and Pro Bowl kick returner in 2019 who worked hard to become a factor in the passing game, miss five games and counting; he currently is on the reserve/injured list with a neck injury.

That partly explains why the numbers in the passing game for the Saints – 10-4 entering their Christmas Day game against the Vikings (6-8) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – haven't popped this season as they have in past seasons. And with starting quarterback Drew Brees missing four games due to rib injuries and a punctured lung, it only has contributed to the stitching job that New Orleans has been required to do in the passing game.

It also has meant that several young receivers have been thrust into roles that weren't likely forecast entering the season.

Notably, free agent rookie Marquez Callaway (15 catches for 136 yards in 10 games, with 10 punt returns for 106 yards, four kickoff returns for 94 yards and two recoveries on fumbled punts) has impacted on offense and special teams. Callaway, too, has missed time with injuries, as he was designated to return from injured reserve this week after missing three games, and was inactive another game with an ankle injury.

Others who've been needed to chip in have been Lil'Jordan Humphrey (two catches for 29 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown against Kansas City) and Juwan Johnson (two catches for 16 yards), each of whom made the team as undrafted rookies.

Saints Coach Sean Payton said he has been encouraged by the development he has seen.

"I think (it's going) well considering a handful of them, this is their first year, undrafted," Payton said. "In Chicago (on Nov. 1), we leaned on some guys and it seems like each week, depending on the health of our players, we've played a lot of players in those slots.

"Overall, I think they've done a good job. Of course, there's things we're working on and wanting to improve on. But for young players, that's encouraging."

The encouraging development has been buoyed by encouraging words from veterans like Sanders, who said he daily can see the talent and potential of the undrafted receivers.

"I was telling the guys (Tuesday) in practice, I pretty much told them that nobody really expects anything crazy from you guys, honestly," said Sanders, who's second on the team in receptions (48) and receiving yards (580), and tied for third with four touchdown catches. "They say, 'Oh, practice squad guys are playing,' and this and that. I said, 'This is an opportunity that I'm sure a lot of y'all prayed for these opportunities – to get an opportunity to play in the NFL, start in the NFL and make plays.

"And so, I told them these are the times. And I've been preaching to them, carpe diem – seize the moment, seize the day and go out and make your plays, and ball out. Play a physical brand of football, play fast and don't think as much. Just go out and play football, because it's something that we've all been doing since we were at least 8 to 10 to 12 years old. We've been doing this a long time. The NFL, yeah, you make a lot of money doing it, the media is bigger, but when you step between those lines it's football at the end of the day."

The game is the game, and Sanders sees players who are capable of playing it well.

"I see Lil'Jordan, I see Marquez, I see these guys," he said. "These guys are good players, they just need an opportunity. You saw what Marquez did with his opportunity, the guy was balling before he got hurt. And then Lil'Jordan, he comes in and scores a touchdown – a big touchdown for us to give us an opportunity to win the game (against Kansas City).

"And that's what I tell these guys – man, you guys are good players. The difference in the NFL, in terms of athleticism and play-making ability, it's not as big a gap as people think. You take a practice squad guy – I've seen practice squad guys get an opportunity and then the next thing you know, they're starting for some other team. You just never know. These guys are players. I pray to God that they put it on display on Friday."

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