How about that rookie Colston?

Published 6:48 pm Thursday, November 2, 2006

It became obvious to Saints coach Sean Payton back in training camp that rookie receiver Marques Colston was going to be good.

Maybe not the most prolific, big-play, touchdown-scoring weapon on the team. Maybe not a prime candidate for rookie of the year. But good.

“He’s been consistent. That’s the one thing you’re always looking for in a receiver and it had a lot to do with why we ended up putting him there and not the other guy,” Payton said this week.

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By “other guy,” Payton meant the Saints’ 2005 leading receiver, Donte’ Stallworth, who was traded shortly before the regular season.

Stallworth has been productive in Philadelphia with 15 catches for 304 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but has missed several games with a hamstring problem.

Colston leads New Orleans (5-2) with 577 yards receiving and six touchdowns on 33 catches. No Saints running back or receiver has gained as many yards from scrimmage.

The Saints’ far more famous rookie, Reggie Bush, has 42 catches for 290 yards and 70 runs for 212 yards (502 yards combined). And Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, has only one touchdown, albeit on a 65-yard punt return that lifted the Saints past Tampa Bay.

Whether the Saints have won or lost, Colston has been productive.

His longest touchdown of the season, 86 yards, came in a 21-18 loss at Carolina. New Orleans’ 35-22 loss to Baltimore on Sunday could have been a lot worse if not for Colston, who caught six passes for 163 yards, including touchdowns of 47 and 25 yards. His catches included an over-the-shoulder grab as he was being tackled by two players along the sideline for a 14-yard gain on fourth-and-10.

“I don’t want to hype him up too much, but I love the guy,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He’s just scratching the surface, he really is, of what he can accomplish. He’ll make the plays for you (in) critical situations.”

Colston, a clean cut, soft-spoken, introspective, former psychology student doesn’t hesitate when asked if he’s exceeded his own expectations.

“By far. … I just really wanted to get on the field and play and contribute in any way possible,” Colston said. “The thing is to keep setting expectations and try to accomplish the new goals you set for yourself.”

Colston’s 6-foot-4, 230-pound build gives him a natural advantage catching the ball. Yet a number of his big plays had little to do with his height and more to do with running crisp routes, concentration in traffic and escapability once he’s made a catch.

Two defenders had shots at Colston when he hauled in his 47-yard score against Baltimore. He spun free as they hit him simultaneously, then sprinted away from remaining pursuers.

“It’s body position, body control, catching the football and just kind of that want-to,” Brees said. “He makes catches that look like every catch means everything to him.”

Colston says it’s clear to him that his understanding of the game and his receiving skills are far more refined now than only a couple months ago.

Brees said Colston arrived with a quiet confidence and strong work ethic. The quarterback never felt compelled to be a mentor to Colston or offer him any special encouragement to build the rookie’s confidence.

“I just let him play,” Brees said. “He’s got the right head on his shoulders. I’m not going to mess with it.”

It’s far too early to make serious comparisons between Colston and someone like all-time NFL receiving leader Jerry Rice, but the resemblance is there: the soft-spoken humility; the body type; the sure hands; the grace; the uncanny ability to get open downfield; the instinct to run for their lives once they’ve made the catch and slip defenders who seem to have them in their sights. Both played for Division I-AA college programs, Colston at Hofstra and Rice at Mississippi Valley State.

In addition to his long touchdown catches against Baltimore and Carolina, Colston had a 35-yard score in a triumph at Green Bay. He caught an important 12-yard touchdown pass in his debut at Cleveland and a 7-yard TD in a victory over Philadelphia.

While Colston did not score in the win over Atlanta, he led New Orleans in receiving that game with nine catches for 97 yards.

Colston emphasized that much of what he’s accomplished has to do with the team that took him in the seventh round of the draft — a team with a new coaching staff that was looking to overhaul the roster. It’s also a team with numerous other offensive weapons to distract defenses, be it the flashy, versatile Bush, bruising running back Deuce McAllister or flamboyant receiver Joe Horn. Not to mention an experienced, accurate quarterback.

“I’ve been put in a great situation to succeed, coming onto a team that definitely wants to win, has a lot of veteran guys,” Colston said. “This coaching staff gives a chance for someone to come in and thrive. … Everyone came in with a clean slate, and for me it kind of leveled the playing field. There was no bias when things started.”

Colston said he also has benefited from rarely encountering double coverage.

“The first few weeks a lot of teams didn’t even know who I was,” Colston said. “I really haven’t seen too much of it. I really don’t know if I should expect to see it. We have so many offensive weapons. We’ll see what happens.”

The Saints travel to Tampa Bay Sunday.