NFC South Reporter
Could Monday’s Saints-Panthers game be a breakout game for New Orleans receiver Chris Olave? If a big season is ahead for the second-year star, the prime-time divisional showdown could be something of a launching point.
Olave, 23, topped 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie last season, and Sunday’s win against the Titans was a promising start to 2023, as his eight catches for 112 yards both marked the second-highest totals in his young career.
“Today was awesome because the ball spread around so much,” quarterback Derek Carr said after throwing for 305 yards in his Saints debut. “Chris obviously went over 100 and that’s fantasy people’s favorite thing ever. When we can spread it out, no matter who gets the 100, no matter who gets the touchdown, as long as we keep that mindset of big team, little me.”
With Michael Thomas healthy and Olave and Rashid Shaheed emerging in their second seasons, the Saints have a pick-your-poison aspect to their receiving corps, with Shaheed getting the game’s only touchdown Sunday and all three receivers topping 60 yards.
The addition of Carr ramps up the potential for a Saints No. 1 — no player in the NFC South caught more than seven touchdowns last season, but Carr’s top target has had at least nine scores in the past three seasons. Davante Adams caught an NFL-best 14 touchdowns last season with Carr throwing to him in Las Vegas, and receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller caught nine each in 2021 and 2020.
Thomas has had monster seasons in catches and yardage, but never more than nine touchdowns in a season. In fact, no Saints receiver has caught 10 in any season since Marques Colston did in 2012, and the team record for a receiver is only 11, shared by Colston in 2007 and Joe Horn in 2004.
To appreciate how much the Saints gave up to get Olave last year, the trades involved have helped two other franchises. To acquire the No. 16 and 19 picks from the Eagles (New Orleans took offensive lineman Trevor Penning at 19), the Saints gave up a first- and third-round pick, which the Eagles flipped to get Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown, as well as a 2023 first-round pick (after a minor trade, used to take defensive lineman Jalen Carter) and the Saints’ 2024 second-round pick.
And then to move up from 16 to 11 to get Olave, the Saints sent Washington draft picks that have yielded four players for the Commanders: first-round receiver Jahan Dotson, whose seven touchdown catches last year tied for the most by any rookie; third-round running back Brian Robinson, their leading rusher last year and last week; fifth-round quarterback Sam Howell, now their starter; and fifth-round tight end Cole Turner.
Olave is just starting his second lap around the division, but the Panthers are an opponent that should give him confidence. His best game as a rookie came at Carolina in Week 3 last year, as he set career highs with nine catches for 147 yards. His other game against the Panthers yielded 60 yards and a touchdown — both in one-score losses — and Carolina’s injury situation could give him an additional advantage.
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The Panthers will be without top corner Jaycee Horn, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. He was a central part of last year’s 22-14 Carolina win over the Saints in Charlotte, with an interception and a tip that led to a second pick. In his place after the injury Sunday was C.J. Henderson, who was covering Olave in Charlotte last year when Olave had a 49-yard catch. Henderson was graded as the 81st corner out of 92 across the league by Pro Football Focus, so it represents a real vulnerability for Carolina.
The Saints finished a game out of first place in the NFC South last year, and their division record included sweeps at the hands of the Bucs and Panthers. Improving on that 0-4 mark is a must if the Saints are to challenge for a division title, and their first chance to change that is Monday night in Charlotte.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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