METAIRIE, La. -- Things looked a little different to start the season for the New Orleans Saints. Cornerback Alontae Taylor was a special teams player, linebacker Kaden Elliss was a backup and wide receiver Rashid Shaheed was on the practice squad.
Wide receiver Chris Olave, the most anticipated addition to the team after being taken with the 11th pick in April, was a player with a lot of potential but hadn't proved himself yet.
Now, as the season comes to an end, those players are showing promise to be the future of the team.
Taylor leads the Saints with 11 pass deflections, Elliss is second on the team with seven sacks and has two forced fumbles and Shaheed, who averages he averages 18.2 yards per catch, has been a breath of fresh air with his explosive plays.
Olave would probably still be in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year if he hadn't missed two games because of injury. With 982 receiving yards, Olave is on pace to become the third Saints wideout to break 1,000 yards as a rookie.
If Olave were to hit his season average of 70 yards when the Saints (7-9) host the Carolina Panthers (6-10) in the season finale Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), he would pass Marques Colston's 1,038 yards (in 2006) for the second-most yards by a rookie in franchise history. It would take a new career high of 155 yards for him to match Michael Thomas' franchise record of 1,137 yards (2016).
Taylor will likely take the place of Paulson Adebo (hamstring) against the Panthers after getting no defensive snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. And with tackles James Hurst and Ryan Ramczyk both injured, Landon Young and first-round pick Trevor Penning will probably get the start.
When asked if he might get the nod, Penning couldn’t help but smile.
“I’m hoping that’ll happen,” he said. “My last game of the year. I’m going to go out there and have fun.”
But while Penning, the likely left tackle of the future, was always expected to get playing time, it’s other rookies that have been pleasant surprises.
Shaheed has been the team’s biggest success story this season. He's taken over as the kick and punt returner, scored a rushing touchdown and has 25 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns.
“There’s been some really good growth out of some young players,” coach Dennis Allen said. “None of you guys knew who Rashid Shaheed was when he first showed up. And for him to develop the way that he has, has been outstanding. I know that when we took Alontae Taylor in the second round, there were a lot of people that said ‘What are we doing?’ And watch his growth. So, yeah, it’s awesome to see these young guys grow up and develop, and they still have a long way to go, but that’s what this is about.”
Shaheed’s success is enough to put Deonte Harty’s future in jeopardy with his contract expiring in 2023. Harty, like Shaheed, was an undrafted free agent from Assumption College who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie kick returner in 2019.
Saints tight end Juwan Johnson recalled watching Shaheed catching passes from the JUGS machine last June, even though the rookie was still recovering from an ACL tear in college. Johnson walked away feeling impressed.
“He wasn’t able to play yet, he was still on the JUGS catching when he couldn’t even run full speed yet,” Johnson said. “I just know he wanted to get better in that moment. … I’d seen it in him then that he was going to be pretty good. I didn’t think he was going to be this good, but he’s doing great.”
Along with Harty and Shaheed, Johnson -- who leads the Saints with seven receiving touchdowns -- falls in line as another undrafted player to end up as an impact player on the roster.
“I don’t know what Mickey [Loomis] is doing. I don’t know how he finds these guys. I don’t know what he does, but man he does a great job man,” said Johnson, who made the team as a wide receiver in 2020 before being converted to tight end. “And the thing is, us undrafted guys, we don’t come in thinking we just arrived just because we’re on the team. We just want so much more.”
With the emergence of their budding stars, things are "exciting" in the eyes of Penning, and the Saints are hoping they can carry a winning streak into the offseason.
“Ending the season on a high note like that, hopefully going 4-0 the last four games, that would be huge for a lot of people,” Penning said. “Hopefully [we] kind of prove we have a good team, and we can take that into the offseason and build on that and keep improving.
“That should be kind of a thing that’s a positive we can look on to and hopefully [others] think that way.”