NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Marques Colston grimaces at the prospect of recounting his second season in the NFL.
His right knee has been sore since training camp. His back has been bothering him since he fell hard after an acrobatic reception in Week 2. The nagging injuries caused New Orleans' top receiver to lose most of the bulk he added to his 6-foot-4 frame over the summer.
Then there's the inconsistency of the Saints, who have struggled to stay near .500 and have narrowly kept alive hope of an NFC wild-card playoff berth.
``It's been a pretty trying season, personally just being injured the whole year and having to continue to fight through the injuries week in and week out,'' Colston said. ``Obviously, as a team, we haven't performed on the field like we expected to, so it's been a pretty frustrating year.''
And yet, the low-key, seventh-round draft pick out of Hofstra remains one of the top receivers in the league and a crucial factor in whatever success the Saints (6-7) have had.
He leads the team with eight touchdowns, matching his total for all of last season. His 79 receptions is tied for eighth in the NFL, and his 978 yards is tied for 10th in the league.
Colston is on pace to easily eclipse the 1,038 yards he gained during his surprising rookie season, when he emerged from virtual obscurity and performed so well in training camp that the Saints decided to trade Donte Stallworth.
One of his better performances of the season came Monday night in Atlanta, when he caught nine passes for 92 yards, including two difficult touchdown receptions in tight coverage.
``He is a legitimate big-time player in the league,'' said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose team must deal with Colston on Sunday in New Orleans. ``There's certainly a confidence factor between the quarterback and him.
``Whenever you have that working, they understand the timing and where to put the ball, makes it much more difficult to defend those types of players. I have a lot of respect for what he's accomplished in those two short years.''
Both of Colston's touchdowns in Atlanta illustrated Whisenhunt's point.
On the first, Drew Brees took advantage of Colston's height and agility, throwing a 15-yard pass high and over Colston's back shoulder so it would be out of the reach of a closely pursuing defender. Colston leapt up and twisted in the air to grab the pass before crashing down in the back of the end zone.
Colston's concentration and sure hands helped him on his second TD, when he crouched between two defenders to grab a quick slant from Brees along the goal line.
``I've had some good games and made some good plays, which is what I expect myself to do, but just from a consistency standpoint I haven't been where I'd like to be this season,'' Colston said. ``I pretty much go out and do my job. That's the way I look at it.''
Colston's new teammate, veteran receiver David Patten, gushes about Colston's maturity, work ethic and selflessness.
``True professionalism, work ethic second to none, a team-oriented guy,'' Patten said. ``Although he knows he's the man, when things don't go his way, he has such a great attitude he never complains.
``He never wants to take plays off in practice. ... It's just not in his nature. It's not in his being. He cannot sit out. He feels like he's letting us down when he doesn't take a snap in practice.''
Colston, who began class at Hofstra as an electrical engineering major before switching to psychology (the engineering labs too often conflicted with football, he said), is very soft-spoken and doesn't seem to enjoy talking about himself.
When asked what has been good about this season, he steers the focus of his answer to the team.
``We definitely found out the kind of character we have in this locker room. We've got guys who are going to fight to the end and always keep believing,'' Colston said. ``So just from that standpoint, that's definitely a good thing to take away from this season.''
Patten, however, said Colston has much to be proud of, and has the potential to be ``one of the all-time greats'' if he maintains the approach to the game he has had his first two seasons.
``The team has struggled this year, but if you look at him, he's been doing great with the opportunities he's given,'' Patten said. ``Every time you throw him the ball he makes something happen. He's tough. He does everything you ask of him.
``We have a receiving corps of guys who work every day and are unselfish, and he's the leader of that because he leads by example.''

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