WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Marcus Murphy, who was the last of the Saints’ nine 2015 draft picks, is showing the potential to emerge as one of their top kick and punt returners in his rookie season.
At the very least, coach Sean Payton likes what he’s seen so far and wants to give Murphy ample opportunities to win the job.
Murphy averaged 26.4 yards on five kickoff returns in Thursday night’s preseason opener at Baltimore, with his longest return going 32 yards.
"We drafted him, primarily first, for what we saw as a punt and kick returner," Payton said after Sunday’s practice. "He did some good things the other night in the kick return game."
Murphy, who spent his college career at Missouri as both a running back and return man, led the Southeastern Conference in all-purpose yards last season with 1,921. During his college career he brought back four punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns.
Yet many NFL teams passed on him, perhaps because at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, he is small by NFL standards.
"People say I was overlooked, underrated," Murphy said. "I just want to be able to get an opportunity, and the Saints gave me an opportunity, so I just want to make the best of it."
The Saints have had success with smaller running backs who double as return men — namely, Darren Sproles, who in 2011 set an NFL record that still stands with 2,696 all-purpose yards.
Like Sproles, Murphy has exceptional speed and agility, in addition to being deceptively strong for a player his size. He’s already demonstrated he’s not afraid to try to break tackles rather than veer out of bounds to avoid a hit.
"I am a smaller running back, so I just want to come out and show them that I can be elusive and I do have some toughness to me, too," Murphy said.
His teammates sound impressed by what they’ve seen so far.
"He can put his nose down and find that seam," said fullback Eric Lorig, who also plays on special teams. "In the running back game, he’s getting more involved and he knows what he’s doing. He’s a smart player. … Marcus seems to bring a lot to the table."
In 2014, Murphy was the only player in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to score touchdowns as rusher, receiver, punter returner and kick returner.
And in the Saints’ preseason opener, he easily scored a 3-yard touchdown on a run around the right end. So in discussing goals for his rookie season, he speaks in generalities and doesn’t apply limits to what he can do.
"The ultimate goal is just to make the 53-man roster and contribute to the team in any way I can," Murphy said. "I consider myself as a playmaker, coming in with an open mindset, playing any position I can play."
Third-year Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin, who is trying to secure the backup job behind Drew Brees, said Murphy has the potential to work his way into the offensive game plan.
"He’s got a special feel for the pass game. He’s just got some instincts that are tough to teach, a little awareness of how to break routes off, how to set up routes," Griffin said. "That’s going to be one of his strongest qualities and that’s how we might use him this year."
Payton also has mentioned Murphy’s instincts, calling them "really good" in the return game. Payton added that he hopes his club can create more opportunities for Murphy to attempt more punt returns. He was only sent out to field one punt in Baltimore, and made a fair catch.
"First and foremost, as a punt returner and a kick returner, you have to play smart. So I’m not going to be aggressive when I don’t need to," Murphy said. "I want to show the coaches they can trust me, get confidence in me to make a smart judgment. If I need to fair catch it, I will. But if I have open space, I will return it."
Notes: Payton said rookie linebacker Davis Tull, a fifth-round draft choice who began training camp on the physically unable to perform list, is healthy now. He had shoulder surgery in March. … Those sitting out practice on Sunday included cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux, and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who all left the preseason opener in Baltimore with undisclosed injuries. … The Saints changed their practice schedule for the coming week. They will take Monday off and hold a morning practice and afternoon walk-through on Tuesday, which originally was scheduled as a day off. The Saints then host joint practices with the New England Patriots on Wednesday and Thursday before moving football operations from the Greenbrier Resort back to New Orleans on Friday.