METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Not long ago, Saints receivers Kenny Stills and Nick Toon merely represented the future of New Orleans' passing game.
The young pair, both in their second season on the active roster, now appear to be firmly part of the present as the Saints enter the final four games of the regular season with their playoff hopes in the balance.
Stills has emerged as the Saints leader in yards receiving this season with 691, having moved ahead of tight end Jimmy Graham (670) and veteran receiver Marques Colston (634) in recent weeks.
Toon struggled to crack the lineup until receiver Brandin Cooks, the Saints' first-round draft choice last spring, broke his hand in Week 11. During the two games since, Toon has played dozens of offensive snaps, catching five passes for 59 yards and his first career touchdown.
Both Toon and Stills caught touchdown passes from Drew Brees in Pittsburgh last Sunday, a warning sign to upcoming opponents about the risk of designing defensive schemes to deny Graham from getting the ball, as the Steelers did.
"When you have a great quarterback he finds the guys that are open," Stills said after practice Wednesday. "Drew's just finding us and we're getting the ball in the end zone."
New Orleans (5-7), which is tied with Atlanta for first place in the NFC South Division, hosts Carolina (3-8-1) on Sunday.
Brees said he's noticed "a little bit of an extra swagger" in Stills in recent weeks, as well as "an extra focus" as the second-year receiver realized he would have to help fill the void left by Cooks' injury.
"That's a good thing," Brees said. "Nick Toon the same way. Obviously Nick Toon is now playing a big role in the lineup due to Brandin's absence and has done a great job."
Stills, a 2013 fifth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma, caught on more quickly than Toon. He played in all 16 games last season and caught 32 passes for 641 yards and five touchdowns.
Coach Sean Payton has been impressed by Stills knack for picking things up as well as his speed, which makes him a deep threat.
"He's really smart and he's got the skill set you're looking for," Payton said.
This season, Stills started slower, in large part because of a quad injury that wiped out most of his preseason.
He also missed the regular season opener and did not really seem to hit his stride until Week 7 at Detroit, when he had five catches for 103 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown.
"It nagged for a while," Stills said of his quad injury, "but I'm feeling great now."
His 69-yard touchdown last week was his third scoring play this season.
"I wanted to improve on what I did last year and the season's not over yet so I've got a lot of work to do," Stills said.
While Stills brings speed and instinctive route-running to New Orleans receiving corps, Toon provides Brees with a 6-foot-4 target and good hands. He also demonstrated toughness and balance after the catch in Pittsburgh, spinning away from and running over tacklers for his 11-yard score.
Partly because of injuries, he has been somewhat slow to realize potential the Saints saw him in when they made him a fourth-round draft choice out of Wisconsin in 2012.
He spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve because of a preseason foot injury. Last season, he played in eight games with three starts, but made only four catches for 68 yards.
His father, Al Toon, was an All-Pro with the New York Jets, and the younger Toon said he's been fortunate to be able to lean on his father for perspective while awaiting his opportunity.
"Everybody wishes that they're out there contributing every week but that's part of the business," Toon said. "If you're not out there, it's about being ready to go when you're number is called. If you are out there it's about going out there and making something happen and making sure you stay out there."
Toon said he never questioned why he wasn't playing more earlier in the season. He simply continued to follow coaches' instructions and prepare each week as if he was going to play. He believes that approach has paid off the past two games, and it has only made him more confident.
"The more you play, the more confident and more comfortable you feel out there," Toon said.
Notes: RB Khiry Robinson, who has missed six straight games with a right forearm injury, returned to practice on Wednesday on a limited basis with a brace on his arm. Payton said Robinson is expected to play this Sunday.
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Posted on Thu, December 4, 2014
by BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer