METAIRIE, La. — Rookie receiver Nick Toon was looking over the jersey numbers the Saints were offering him when his eyes fixed on No. 88, the same number his All-Pro father, Al Toon, wore with the New York Jets.
“I thought it would be pretty cool to wear the same number. So I’m kind of paying homage to him,” the younger Toon said during Saints minicamp this week. “I saw it at the end of the list of the numbers and I said, ‘I’ve got to have that one.’”
He even resembled his father in Wednesday’s practice, when he used his long reach and sure hands to make a one-handed grab in tight coverage at the edge of the end zone before falling out of bounds.
“He was out,” offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. said, laughing, but added that the catch demonstrated what coaches were expecting to see when they made the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Toon their second overall draft pick in April, selecting him in the fourth round.
“Any young guy coming into this offense has got a lot to learn. He’s got it down now ... runs good routes,” Carmichael said. “He’s got great hands, great focus, great concentration.”
Although his parents never pressured him to play football — even forbid him to play until seventh grade — the younger Toon thrived playing the same position his father did at Wisconsin. Last season, Toon led the Badgers in receiving with 64 catches for 926 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Now he’ll see if he can be a successful second-generation pro.
Toon is not sure if being the son of a former NFL star is an advantage, “but it obviously doesn’t hurt,” he said, adding, “My dad was a great player and it’s in my blood.”
The Saints drafted two sons of NFL pros last year — running back Mark Ingram and defensive end Cameron Jordan — and so far that has worked out well. Jordan worked his way into a starting role in his rookie season and Ingram was a central part of the offense.
Carmichael said that when coaches met Toon at the NFL combine, they saw “a mature young man who understood what it took to play at this level.”
“You could tell that he had been around the game and had been around someone who had been around the game,” Carmichael said. “Whether gives him an advantage, I don’t know, but we have high expectations.”
Toon comes to a Saints team that lost one of its top receivers when Robert Meachem left for San Diego in free agency. Adrian Arrington is expected to be first in line to step into that void as he enters his fifth year as a pro, but Toon, a favorite prospect of Saints wide receivers coach Henry Ellard, could provide some competition.
The Saints have compared Toon in body type and his ability to make tough catches to star receiver Marques Colston, and Toon says he was watching Colston closely, hoping to use his success as a blueprint.
The saints have “had success with a player of his caliber and his body type, his skill set,” Toon said of Colston. “People have compared me to him. Obviously we’re not the same player, but have similar qualities, so hopefully I can have as much success as he had.”
Toon said he talks to his father regularly, but does not really consult him on technical, on-the-field matters.
“He’s really more of a life coach for me, speaks to me about the big picture and the important stuff, knowing your assignments, doing what you’re supposed to do, taking care of your business on and off the field,” Toon said. “He’s obviously my father so that’s his job first, to be a dad and everything else after that.”
Toon, who was still a preschooler when his father’s NFL career ended, said he always wanted to play football, but appreciated his parents’ decision to keep him off the gridiron when he was young, giving him a chance to try many other sports.
He played soccer, baseball, basketball, ran track and even tried lacrosse for a year.
“There was never pressure from either of my parents to play football or play sports for that matter,” Toon said. “I went out and played catch like any little kid, but it wasn’t one of those things like people picture in their head, that as soon as I came out of the womb where was a football in my hands.”
“It’s important for especially young kids to experience a wide array of sports,” Toon continued. “A lot of kids are getting specialized in sports before they even get to junior high or high school and that’s unfortunate. As a young kid you should be playing two or three different sports and experience everything and if sports is what you want to do, find the game that you love. Experience everything. So I’m glad it went the way it went when I was younger.”
It certainly didn’t stop him from pursuing his NFL dreams.