LONDON — New Orleans Saints wide receiver Chris Olav was supposed to be just one of the new offensive pieces of the puzzle this season.
This week, he may be the only piece.
Olav may be one of the few playmakers still alive after the Saints’ 22-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers last week. When the Saints (1-2) head into the game against the Minnesota Vikings (2-1) on Sunday (9:30 AM ET NFL Network) in London at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, they will do so with wide receiver injuries. Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, Tre’Quan Smith and Deonte Harty all left Sunday’s game early or didn’t play.
Quarterback Jameis Winston, running back Alvin Kamara and tights Hill are also coping with their injuries, leaving Olav one of the few healthy viable targets. Winston struggled with back and ankle injuries, gaining 858 passing yards but also throwing five interceptions in addition to 11 sacks in three games.
If Thomas and Landry are eliminated, the Vikings game will be the biggest test of Olave’s short career because he won’t benefit from the attention Thomas and Landry have on defense.
When asked about the team’s confidence that they could activate if they couldn’t go, he said that the Saints would be up to the task.
“I mean, having them there would be a huge plus, but if they can’t get away, I feel like we’re really confident in our group and our offense,” Olav said. “We’re just going to keep getting better and if they can leave that will be a huge plus, but if they can’t we’re going to make up for it.”
So far Olav has passed many of the initial tests. The 2022 first-rounder was one of the Saints’ few offensive highlights last week, catching nine passes for 147 yards in a loss to the Panthers. He is the first Saints rookie to hit for 100 yards since Smith did against the Eagles in 2018.
But Olav didn’t quite smile after that game with the Panthers.
“I’m an athlete, man, so when we’re not winning, I don’t really care about the numbers,” Olav said. “I feel like we could start this much sooner. We’ve taken a step forward, but I feel like there’s a lot to take away.”
Olave’s 268 receiving yards, currently ranked seventh in the NFL, is more than Thomas had in three games as a rookie in 2016. Thomas ended up with 1,137 receiving yards that season.
Unsurprisingly, Olav has become a solid addition. The 11th overall pick was tied with the Saints almost immediately after the start of the draft season last spring.
The Saints were desperate for help, and Olaf seemed like a good fit. It was part of a major overhaul that included Thomas returning from injury, signing Landry, and moving Hill from quarterback to full-time tight end.
To show just how much things have changed, Marques Callaway, the No. 1 host last year in Thomas’s absence, has only caught one pass this season. Olaf, Thomas and Landry have a double-digit reception.
But surprisingly, Olav managed to rack up a massive amount of points while the offense struggled to maintain any sort of consistency over the course of three games. The Saints did their best in the fourth quarter, often playing catch-up, and then they gained 46% of the total number of yards.
“I definitely feel like I have a lot of space [for improvement]”, Olav said after training Wednesday outside of London. “I feel like I haven’t played my best game yet. I feel like I can clear a lot of things. I feel like when I get attacked, I want to use every pass that is thrown at me, and I feel like I haven’t done that until now. But I’m getting better every week, and that’s all that matters.”
Olav currently leads the Saints with 17 receptions (but has yet to register his first receiving touchdown). His target share has grown significantly from three goals in the first week to 26 in the last two games.
He was also Winston’s favorite midfield target despite mixed results. Olaf’s 18.2 air yards per goal ranks third in the NFL, though some of those attempts were fourth-quarter desperate attempts, including two that were intercepted.
The Saints have no intention of stopping throwing Olaf deep, especially if Harty, who has been underused this season but is one of the best deep threats, remains on the sidelines.
“Obviously we were able to hit him during some explosive games on the pitch,” said coach Dennis Allen. “I think it is good. Of course, we will continue to use it in this regard.”
In Olav’s final season at Ohio State last year, he was part of a trio of successful receivers alongside Jackson Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson, who was selected one spot ahead of Olav by the New York Jets.
Given the current injury situation, it is possible that Olav will be able to take on the brunt of a heavy offense. If he succeeds, it will certainly give an early boost to the Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign.
But for now, Olav and the Saints are just trying to figure out how to bolster an offense that has, in fact, only played one full quarter so far.
“I mean we lost those first three games. We all know that we will fight,” Olav said. “In the end, we are all competitors. We’re not going to give up until the clock runs out. So that’s the only thing I came up with in those first three weeks. We believe in each other. We just need to build that chemistry and that rhythm is going to be explosive for the rest of the year.”