Opportunistic Latavius Murray making case for larger role with Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees doesn’t plan to keep the ball from his first post-surgery touchdown pass on Sunday.

He’s going to let new teammate Latavius Murray have that one -- because it was actually Murray’s first TD catch in seven NFL seasons.

“That’s all his. He earned it,” said Brees, who leaned on Murray quite a bit in the New Orleans Saints' win on Sunday, completing nine passes to him for 55 yards while fellow running back Alvin Kamara was sidelined by ankle and knee injuries for the second straight week.

Murray was admittedly “pretty hyped up” about the TD, which came on the 150th catch of his career.

Before that, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the only player in NFL history with more receptions without a receiving TD was former Falcons RB Gerald Riggs with 201.

“I knew the minute I caught it, ‘Oh, this is gonna be it,’” said Murray, who caught a short pass from Brees around the 12-yard line and had to keep his balance on the way into the end zone to avoid being shoved out of bounds. “And I told Drew right after and he said, ‘No way.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, seven years, it’s kind of sad.’ But hey, today it got done.

“It was due. It’s been a long time coming.”

Murray, who turns 30 in three months, is suddenly doing a bunch of things he has never done before.

His nine catches were also a career high. And he has now run for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career -- even though he made a Pro Bowl with a 1,000-yard rushing season for the Oakland Raiders in 2015.

Murray has gained a total of 307 yards from scrimmage over the past two weeks, with 14 receptions and four total touchdowns.

“Someone asked the other day if I’m doing anything different. I just said, ‘It’s just the opportunities,’” said Murray, who pounced quickly on the Saints’ four-year, $14 million offer to become Mark Ingram's replacement during the legal-tampering window of free agency -- even though Murray knew he would have to wait for opportunities behind Kamara.

Murray said his free-agency decision was easy because of the chance to play in this offense.

“Any of the other places I’ve ever been, it’s not like I dropped the ball or I can’t catch,” said Murray, who spent four years with the Raiders (his rookie season on injured reserve) and two with the Minnesota Vikings. “It’s the opportunities, and I’ve gotten 'em here. Screens, checkdowns. I think quarterbacks play a big role in that and finding the open guy. So it’s all been a testament just to the offense. I credit everything to the offense.”

Obviously Murray deserves plenty of the credit himself -- and not just for his performance, but for his patience leading up to these past two weeks.

Murray had a total of just 32 carries and nine catches over the first six weeks while Kamara got the lion’s share of the work.

“I know my role, I know exactly why I’m here. And I’m just making sure I contribute when my number’s called … and not taking it personal,” said Murray, who also split time with Dalvin Cook and Jerick McKinnon in Minnesota.

Murray said he thinks he is even better equipped now for that type of role than he would have been earlier in his career because of maturity and experience.

“You know, I’m real with myself and I’m honest with myself about the things I can be better at, the things that I don’t do well and the things I can continue to work on," Murray said. "And I think as long as I keep that mindset, whenever I do get opportunities, I’m gonna go out there and make plays, regardless of the situation that I’m in.”

Ingram was going to be a hard guy to replace, both on and off the field. He was beloved in the locker room. Many players called him the “heart and soul” of the team, and he had close relationships with guys like Kamara and defensive end Cameron Jordan, among others.

But the Saints felt like they had to move on when Ingram was seeking a hefty deal in free agency (he was aiming higher than the three-year, $15 million deal he ultimately signed with the Baltimore Ravens). And they acted quickly to secure Murray because they believed he would be a great complement to Kamara.

So far that has proved to be true. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Murray is a powerful runner who is capable of running out the clock in the fourth quarter and has done some of his best work near the goal line in his career.

He now has 30 rushing touchdowns in the past four seasons (plus two that were nullified by holding penalties over the past three weeks).

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Brees said. “Man, he’s a pro, he’s a ballplayer.”

Even when Kamara returns after the Week 9 bye, it’s fair to assume Murray will play a steady role. Coach Sean Payton stressed this offseason that he wanted to keep Kamara on the same “pitch count” he had alongside Ingram the past two years to keep him fresh and healthy.

And if Murray hadn’t already earned Payton’s trust before these past two weeks, he certainly has now. Perhaps the Saints could also find more ways to get both running backs on the field together, too, since they have such a dearth of pass-catchers behind Michael Thomas. Kamara and Murray are now second and third on the team in receptions this year.

“He's been real steady,” Payton said. “He's one of these runners that's got good vision and can kind of put his foot in the ground, pick up speed in a hurry. He's a fantastic teammate. All the things we look for in a teammate, he has.

“So he's been a good addition for us.”