Saints WR Chris Olave set for primetime breakout against Panthers on Monday

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Could Monday’s Saints-Panthers game be a make-or-break game for New Orleans wide receiver Chris Olave? If a big season is on the horizon for the second-year star, the primetime divisional showdown could be something of a starting point.

Olave, 23, surpassed 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie last season, and Sunday’s win against the Titans was a promising start to 2023, as his eight receptions for 112 yards marked the second-highest totals of his young career. .

“Today was great because the ball spread a lot,” quarterback Derek Carr said after throwing for 305 yards in his Saints debut. “Chris obviously went over 100 and that’s fantasy people’s favorite thing. When we can spread it out, it doesn’t matter who gets the 100, it doesn’t matter who gets the touchdown, as long as we keep that big team, little me mentality.”

With Michael Thomas healthy and Olave and Rashid Shaheed emerging in their second seasons, the Saints have a pick-your-poison look to their receiving corps, with Shaheed posting the game’s only touchdown on Sunday and all three receivers surpassing 60 yards.

The addition of Carr increases the potential of a Saints No. 1: No player in the NFC South caught more than seven touchdowns last season, but Carr’s top target has had at least nine touchdowns in the last three seasons. Davante Adams caught an NFL-best 14 touchdowns last season with Carr throwing to him in Las Vegas, and receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller each caught nine in 2021 and 2020.

Thomas has had monster seasons in receptions and yards, but never more than nine touchdowns in a season. In fact, no Saints receiver has caught 10 in any season since Marques Colston did so in 2012, and the team record for a receiver is just 11, shared by Colston in 2007 and Joe Horn in 2004.

To appreciate how much the Saints gave up to acquire Olave last year, the trades involved have helped two other franchises. To acquire the Eagles’ No. 16 and No. 19 picks (New Orleans took offensive lineman Trevor Penning at No. 19), the Saints gave up a first- and third-round pick, which the Eagles traded to acquire Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown, as well as a 2023 first-round pick (after a minor trade, he used to take defensive lineman Jalen Carter) and the Saints’ 2024 second-round pick.

And then to move up from 16th to 11th to land Olave, the Saints sent draft picks to Washington that have netted four players for the Commanders: first-round receiver Jahan Dotson, whose seven touchdown receptions last year tied for the most amount for any newbie; third-round running back Brian Robinson, their leading rusher last year and last week; fifth-round quarterback Sam Howell, now their starter; and fifth-round tight end Cole Turner.

Olave is just beginning his second go-around in the division, but the Panthers are an opponent that should give him confidence. His best game as a rookie came in Carolina in Week 3 last year, when he set career highs with nine catches for 147 yards. His other game against the Panthers yielded 60 yards and a touchdown, both in one-score losses, and Carolina’s injury situation could give him an added advantage.

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The Panthers will be without senior cornerback Jaycee Horn, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. He was a central part of Carolina’s 22-14 victory over the Saints in Charlotte last year, with an interception and a tip that led to a second pick. In his place after Sunday’s injury was CJ Henderson, who covered Olave in Charlotte last year when Olave had a 49-yard reception. Henderson was graded as the 81st out of 92 cornerback league-wide by Pro Football Focus, so he represents a real vulnerability for Carolina.

The Saints finished one game out of first place in the NFC South last year, and their division record included sweeps at the hands of the Bucs and Panthers. Improving that 0-4 record is a must if the Saints want to challenge for a division title, and their first chance to change that is Monday night in Charlotte.

Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports and covers the buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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