Not long ago, the tight end position was one of the most important facets of the Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints offense. From 2011-2014, former Saints tight end Jimmy Graham averaged 89 catches, 1,099 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns per season. After the surprise trade of Graham in the 2015 off-season, Ben Watson took over the starting role and went on to produce a healthy 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns that season.
Unfortunately, the Saints hesitated to re-sign Watson following the 2016 season and he was snagged by the Baltimore Ravens on the first day of free agency. New Orleans then appeared to panic over the sudden glaring need at tight end and signed Coby Fleener to a shocking five-year, $36 million dollar contract later that day. Two years later, Fleener is no longer on the team after producing just 926 yards and five touchdowns and burning a massive hole in the Saints wallet.
This off-season, New Orleans attempted a reunion with Graham, only to get outbid by the Green Bay Packers. Instead, they brought back Watson on a thrifty one-year, $2 million dollar contract, and he should be a sufficient solution for the time being. However, the Saints lack any clear long-term solution at the position or a backup to fill Watson’s role in case of injury.
New Orleans Saints 2018 Tight End Breakdown
Guaranteed Roster Spots
The Ravens signing of Watson didn’t pan out initially as he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the 2016 preseason. In 2017, Watson appeared in every game and while he produced a modest 522 receiving yards and four touchdowns, he proved to be very reliable. Watson caught 77.2 percent of passes thrown his way, good for 18th-best in the league last season. Watson was a locker room favorite throughout his previous tenure in New Orleans and he brings invaluable leadership to one of the NFL’s youngest squads.
Josh Hill is entering his sixth season as a reliable backup for New Orleans. Hill’s blocking ability is his best asset, and his dirty work in the trenches helped the Saints running game generate over 2,000 yards and a league-best 23 rushing touchdowns last season. Hill has been given opportunities to succeed in the passing game while filling in for injury, but he’s never been able to excel in that regard. His best season as a receiver was 2014 when he caught 14 passes for 176 yards and five touchdowns.
While Hill’s spot is less secure than Watson’s, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t make the roster, aside from injury.
Fighting for a Roster Spot
Outside of Watson and Hill, the Saints will likely keep one other tight end on the final roster. The safest bet is eight-year veteran Michael Hoomanawanui, another excellent run blocker with limited ability in the passing game. A similar skill set can be found in Garrett Griffin, a practice squad member from last season who appeared in three games.
Blocking tight ends are some of the most under-credited players in the league, and having a surplus of this skill set is hardly a problem. However, the Saints will once again find itself without a tight end that defenses take seriously if Watson gets injured. This prospect may put Hoomanawanui’s potential roster spot at risk if another player shows promise as a receiver, and at this point, only one player poses that threat.
Saints fans should pay close attention to Deon Yelder‘s play in training camp and preseason. After passing on a tight end in the draft, Yelder was one of the first undrafted free agents signed by New Orleans. He’s a converted wide receiver who didn’t start at tight end until last season, but he accumulated an impressive 688 receiving yards and seven touchdowns off 52 receptions in 2017. Yelder has also proven to be a capable run blocker despite limited experience at the position.
At the very least, Yelder should end up on the practice squad, but he has an opportunity to become the backup receiving threat behind Watson if he exceeds expectations in August.
The Watson signing will marginally improve this position group as long as Brees and Watson can reignite the chemistry we saw in 2015. Fleener’s departure eliminates a $36 million dollar, underperforming distraction that fans and media could not ignore. Hill should once again reliably play the number two tight end role. While this is all good news, this is likely the weakest spot on the entire roster.
It’s the only position where the Saints don’t have a starter with long-term potential (aside from quarterback), or promising young depth. The only way this reality improves is if Yelder excels in the coming months and sneaks onto the final roster. Yelder doesn’t need to become an immediate difference maker, but earning a roster spot would show that coaches see long-term potential in him.
Improving the tight end spot could be the focus next off-season if the overall roster remains as strong as it currently appears. If there are few positions to address, New Orleans could go all in and gamble on a tight end like they did with the Marcus Davenport selection. For now, though, the fate of this position in 2018 rests largely on the performance and health of the 37-year-old Watson.