Saints rookie A.T. Perry ready to step in for Michael Thomas

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints rookie wide receiver A.T. Perry has been waiting for his moment.

Perry has lived in relative obscurity for three months, sitting behind Michael Thomas, Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed on the depth chart. He bided his time, soaked up every piece of advice and hoped for a chance to prove himself.

His first two catches -- a 23-yard reception from Derek Carr and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10 -- showed there's potential in the sixth-round pick.

With Thomas out for at least four games with a knee injury, Perry will get his chance to prove those two catches weren't flukes. The Saints' latest depth chart, released ahead of their Week 12 game at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), listed Perry as the starter in a three-wide receiver set ahead of veteran Keith Kirkwood.

"A.T. was a guy that I got to work with a little bit in the offseason in the OTAs," Carr said. "[Thomas} wasn't in the OTAs, rehabbing and doing those things. I got to know him a little bit there. And then in training camp there's some days guys have rest days and things like that.

"You've got to be ready to play at all times. There's a lot of games, a lot of injuries, and so I was paying attention to him, and I think very highly of him. I think that he's going to be a really good player. I think he's young, he's raw, but I'm excited for what he can potentially do for sure."

Perry was drafted at No. 195 after amassing a school-record 28 touchdowns at Wake Forest. The Saints liked his size (6-foot-5, 205 pounds), length and ability to transition in and out of routes, but Saints coach Dennis Allen said they needed to see more physicality out of his game.

"That's still an area he can continue to improve on," Allen said. "But yeah, we liked the thought of the player."

The preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs gave the Saints an early glimpse of what they might be getting in Perry when he practically turned around backwards to haul in a deep pass from Winston.

He caught the ball across his body as he pivoted toward the end zone, went airborne and extended one arm out as he was falling down to score an impressive first touchdown.

But preseason feats weren't enough to actually get Perry on the field once the regular season started. He didn't play in a game until Week 8 and didn't catch a pass until Week 10.

It wasn't an unusual situation for Perry, who sat for most of his first two years at Wake Forest. Perry said that he had an opportunity to start as a redshirt freshman in 2019, but he lost his spot because of a lack of attention to detail.

Perry wasn't going to make that mistake again as a rookie, stating that on the depth chart there were "like five, six guys ahead of me."

"Going through this process, 'I'm like, just like college all over again,'" Perry said. "So all I've got to do is control what I can control, get my plays down, details, showing up every day, just coming to play football."

That's why Perry hasn't sat around idly waiting for his turn. When Winston came to him and some of the younger pass-catchers and told them to meet at the facility at 10:30 a.m. on the team's off day, Perry didn't hesitate.

"I was like, 'All right, I'm there,'" he said.

The group of about six or seven players -- which consisted of Winston, rookie quarterback Jake Haener, some practice squad skill players and young receivers like Perry and Jontre Kirklin -- have met every week to go over routes, run though the practice script and prepare themselves in case they were ever asked to step in for one of the starters.

Winston and Perry got on the same page pretty quickly. That time to step in came for both of them against the Vikings. Thomas left with a knee injury in the first quarter, and Carr was ruled out with a concussion late in the third quarter.

The roster looked reminiscent of a preseason game by the fourth quarter.

With 11:43 left to play trailing 27-11, Winston was flushed out of the pocket. He heaved a pass across his body to Perry in the end zone as a hovering cornerback dashed in to try to snag the ball.

"I saw him in the corner of end zone by himself," Winston said, "and as I let it go, I saw [Byron Murphy Jr.] break on it, so I just gave him a ball that only he could get to."

Perry leapt up over the defender to win a jump ball and held on tight as he came down, cutting the deficit and making it a one-score game as the Saints (5-5) converted the 2-point conversion.

"That's just A.T.," Winston said. "Wanted his first touchdown so bad that he goes up top and makes a great play. Sometimes the best plays in football [come from] the scramble drill."

Perry wouldn't let go as officials and other players ran over to see who would come up with it.

"That ball in the air? It's mine, every time," Perry told reporters after the game.

He admitted to having some nerves with his surprise role in the game, but that quickly turned into quiet confidence. Winston already had faith, telling him to go up and make a play if he got a one-on-one opportunity.

"We talk all the time, even in practice, whether it's after a route, just coming in after practice and throwing that same exact route," Perry said of his relationship with Winston. "Even after, we're watching film together with the QBs. We're always talking, just putting things together, putting things in perspective, so when we get on the field knowing things about different coverages and stuff like that. It's just quick."

He and Winston had done this before, away from crowds and scrutiny, and in the moment, it felt just like a regular Tuesday morning.

But even though he's slated to start in Week 12 off of the bye, he has no plans on changing his routine.

"I still show up to make sure I'm on top of things," Perry said.