Over the past four seasons, the New Orleans Saints have witnessed the expectations for the position of tight end skyrocket to unbelievable proportions. In Jimmy Graham, the Saints had, without question, the second best tight end in all of football (only behind New England's Rob Gronkowski) as well as the most dynamic athlete at the position in franchise history. Ultimately, the weight of Graham's new contract of $40 million over 4 years quickly proved to be both burdensome and unnecessary.
Graham's skill and athleticism were unquestioned during his time in New Orleans, but his toughness, his durability, and his blocking acumen all came into question once he commanded $10 million per season. With a new contract in hand, Graham saw his production and durability shrink to career lows across the board last season. The Saints eventually found that parting ways with the 2-time All-Pro tight end was the smartest course of action.
With that, on March 10th of this year, the Saints ended the most productive relationship they had ever seen with a tight end. With great surprise and fanfare, Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in order to provide payroll relief as well as support at other positions of need. In a single moment, the dynamic Jimmy Graham era was over, and the Saints, along with their fans, were forced to re-evaluate the tight end position for the first time in years.
Where will the Saints turn to fill the sizable void at tight end? Enter Josh Hill. The Saints have appeared to set their focus on the 3rd year TE out of Division I FCS Idaho State University. Although fellow TE Benjamin Watson was brought in to be Graham's primary backup in 2013, it had been Hill that had emerged as the #2 behind Graham last season. Now it is Hill that is expected to emerge as the starter, and it is up to Hill to make up some portion of Graham's lofty production at the position.
Hill, while very good and very talented, should not be expected to meet those lofty expectations of production. Even the most talented and versatile tight ends in the league would struggle to meet, much less surpass, Graham's production since 2011. Since the 2011 season, Jimmy Graham averaged roughly 90 receptions for 1,100 yards, and 11 touchdowns per-season. As Graham set himself apart as a talent for the Saints, and the primary weapon for quarterback Drew Brees, the offense began to run primarily though him. With Graham gone, it would stand to reason that Sean Payton will course-correct the offensive philosophy accordingly.
Working in favor for Hill as a fan favorite is his status as an undrafted free agent (2013), one of Who Dat Nation's favorite places to claim unknown stars of tomorrow, and the simple fact that his 2015 salary is a modest $585,000. These factors will greatly soften the blow of any disappointment Hill could have in the coming season. Although Hill has received significant praise from Sean Payton this offseason, he will most likely be splitting time and targets with Ben Watson in more significant ways than Graham ever had to with Hill or Watson over the past two seasons.
With the major improvements to the offensive line, the re-investment in RB Mark Ingram, and the acquisition of C.J. Spiller to the Saints offense, it would seem likely that the focus on the TE as a primary target would likely revert to pre-2010 production levels. Hill and Watson should be more depended as blockers than they would be as receivers. It was in the blocking department that the Saints faltered under Graham, and now that weakness may shift to an area of strength.
To expect Hill and Watson, even combined, to match the production of Graham may be both foolish and unfair. Graham is a rare talent, and for what he specifically provides, is irreplaceable. Josh Hill will not be Jimmy Graham, and yes, the offense will "skip a beat", but there is enough grit and talent with Hill and Watson to bridge the gap and keep the most constantly potent offense in the NFL both consistent and potent.
Watson should provide 30 receptions for 362 yards, and 2 TD's, while Hill, as the primary TE, should produce 59 receptions for 592 yards, and 6 TD's. While these numbers are nowhere near the stellar stats provided by Jimmy Graham over the years, they should prove to be solid enough to facilitate continued success for Sean Payton's offense once again.
Josh Hill will likely turn out to be more Billy Miller than Jimmy Graham, but that's no slight to his skill and his importance to the Saints' offensive success, in fact it would be welcome, considering Miller's solid production during Payton and Brees' early years in New Orleans. Ultimately, the duo of Hill and Watson should prove to be reminiscent of the Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas pairing at TE, and that duo turned out to be pretty successful as Saints. Just because the highlights and electricity may potentially be gone from tight end in New Orleans, there's no reason to expect production and stability to be absent either.
Things are different at TE for the first time in a long time in New Orleans, and the time for a change in expectations has come. The biggest expectation that certainly shouldn't change are the expectations for a dynamic offense, a surprising defense, and an NFC South division title for the Saints in 2015.