How Michael Thomas, Saints helped WR Chris Olave push through 'rookie wall'

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NEW ORLEANS -- Chris Olave was struggling.

The New Orleans Saints first-round pick had heard about the “rookie wall.” He even braced for it.

It began with his four-month final season at Ohio State in 2021 and continued through his draft preparation, which included offseason workouts with Saints teammate and fellow Buckeye Michael Thomas, before heading into his first NFL season.

He just didn’t expect it to hit so hard.

“Everybody told me it was going to come,” Olave said in late December, "but I ain’t expect it to hit me like that."

Olave admitted he was mentally and physically tired by Week 9 or 10, needing to figure out how to break through that mental block. So he asked his teammates for advice.

“Just keep fighting,” they told him. “We all go through stuff. But try to stay positive, keep fighting through the days, and it's gonna be a better day.”

Thanks to his teammates and a Week 14 bye, Olave felt like he was coming on strong again by the end of the season.

“That bye week helped me a lot," Olave said, "but I just feel like I got better on and off the field."

Olave’s 1,042-yard season has put him in the mix -- alongside former Ohio State teammate Garrett Wilson -- for the Pepsi Zero Sugar NFL Rookie of the Year award Thursday.

“I think Chris had a great season, to be honest with you,” Saints assistant general manager Jeff Ireland said. “Look, we were a little bit in flux with the quarterback position early on -- and he kept making plays. And he was really kind of exactly what we thought he would be. Very polished, very fast.

"The fact that he had to be the No. 1 guy when Mike went down early on in his rookie season, I thought he performed very well. Extremely excited about Chris and his future here. ... So Rookie of the Year? Yeah, it’d be great to throw in his resume. And I’m rooting for him. If I had a vote, I’d vote for him."

Whether Olave takes home the award, the Saints believe his best has yet to come.

“He had a good rookie year, but there’s still a lot of things that he can improve on and get better at,” coach Dennis Allen said.

It would be hard to know that anything was ailing Olave, whose quiet and laid-back demeanor doesn’t put him in the spotlight often.

“He’s not like an ‘all about me’ dude, posting everything on social media, telling everybody I’m kind of doing such good things. He’s the type of dude who’s just a silent assassin, that’s what I call him,” wide receivers coach Kodi Burns said. “He kind of sits behind the weeds and waits for opportunities.”

Said Ireland: “He’s a very competitive person; he hates to lose. He’s obsessed with winning, which I love.”

Fellow rookie wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, who was roommates with Olave during rookie minicamp, said the two found common ground early on as they both tried to find their NFL footing.

“He kind of just likes to listen instead of talking,” Shaheed said. “He leads by example. He’s a hard worker, he wants to win, he wants to compete and he wants to be the best. He’s a great person.”

Olave also found a support system in Thomas, who hasn’t been shy about his appreciation for his teammate.

Two days before a 102-yard receiving game against the Los Angeles Rams in November, Olave was in a gym at a local Boys & Girls Club, passing out meals and connecting with kids. The event, the first charity event of his NFL career, received little publicity outside of a picture tweeted by ESPN.

Thomas “liked” the photo just minutes after it went up on social media.

“That's my guy, man,” Olave said, grinning when hearing of this later. “He just wanted the best from me.”

Thomas spent most of the season injured and away from the team, but he didn’t forget Olave.

“He called me a lot and checked on me a lot,” Olave said. “There was a time he was calling me like every day, checking up on me right after I got hurt. Mike’s a good dude. I respect him a lot. ... Ever since I came in here, he’s showing me the way. I’ve got nothing but respect for him.”

It would be a high bar to live up to the standards set by Thomas in his first four seasons. Thomas, a 2016 second-round pick, still holds the Saints' rookie receiving record with 1,137 yards, made three Pro Bowls, set the NFL single-season catch record (149) in 2019 and earned the Offensive Player of the Year award, all before he turned 27.

Olave had an outside shot at Thomas’ rookie record, but missed Week 16 with a hamstring injury and finished with 102 yards in the final two games. Still, his 1,000-yard season ranks second among Saints rookies.

Thomas’ expectations for Olave are clearly high, and during some of those phone calls, he critiqued Olave's game.

“You gotta catch every target coming your way, but at the end of the day, he’s one of my biggest fans, so I can take critiques from him knowing that he’d be the first one to congratulate me too,” Olave said.

While the plan was for Thomas and Olave to play side-by-side, the future is less certain after a third straight season marred by injury for Thomas. The Saints and Thomas recently worked to restructure his contract, making it possible that they part ways in the offseason.

That would mean Olave becomes “the guy” by default.

That’s a challenge he’ll readily embrace, with he and Burns already working on what comes next. They sat down together and watched film of some of the receivers they considered the best in the league, picking up tendencies and how Olave can get to that level.

Olave prides himself on making contested catches, but Allen feels that's an area that the Saints can get better at. He said they need a guy that's "gotta have it."

“I want to be the one-on-one guy, third down, I want to be able to be the main target," Olave said. "When it’s a one-on-one, I’ve got to win 100% of the time. I know it’s something I’ve got to work on, and I’m going to get better on that this offseason.”

Burns knows there's other things that Olave can also do to expand his game to be one of the best in the NFL. He led New Orleans in yards, catches (72), targets (119) and first downs (48).

Burns has challenged Olave to become more explosive and turn his first downs into touchdowns, something he lacked in his rookie year with only four.

“I've been preaching to him, with his speed, ‘You should be a guy, once you catch the ball, people should be scared to death because you have the ability to go to the house,'” Burns said. “When he watches the greats around the league, that's what they're doing. And that's the difference."

If Olave’s competitive nature has anything to say about it, he’ll hit the ground running heading into camp to try to accomplish that.

“I feel like I’m a game-changer,” Olave said. “So if I said it, I’ve got to do it on the field.”