Be it Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey or Jimmy Graham, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has always been at his best when he's had a good tight end (or a great one, in the cases of Gates and Graham) to throw the ball to.
In 2015, Brees will not have that. Graham is gone to the Seahawks, Gates still plays in San Diego and Shockey...well he makes cameo appearances on HBO's awesome show "Ballers" (check it out if you haven't yet, it's great).
Brees is left with only two tight ends on the current Saints roster that ever caught a regular season pass from him: 12-year pro Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill who is entering his third year in the NFL. The other guys are the likes of rookie Tabb Jack out of North Carolina, third-year player Orson Charles who the Bengals had moved to fullback before eventually letting him go, and Kevin Brock who is already on his ninth NFL team. Yikes!
So, the Saints tight end position entering training camp looks like a major question mark. Watson is a solid player all around. He'll block, catch, and he's a veteran leader on this team, something the Saints sorely need in this "locker room rebuilding year." Jack, Charles and Brock are all projects and calculated gambles, thus no one really knows what to expect from them. It's questionable whether any one of them is even going to make the team.
But there's something intriguing about that Josh Hill.
Hill, a product of Idaho State, caught only 14 passes last season on 20 targets (that's a 70% reception rate) with five touchdowns. Superstar tight end Jimmy Graham on the other hand had 85 catches on 124 targets, for a statistically similar 68.5% reception rate and 10 touchdowns.
It's obviously much easier to catch 70% of the passes thrown your way if you're only targeted 20 times, as opposed to maintaining such a high reception rate when being targeted nearly six times more often, which Graham was able to do in 2014. However, with Graham now in the Emerald City, the opportunity to shine is now for the former Idaho State Bengal.
One thing that I particularly liked while looking at Hill's page on Idaho State's website was the first five words that preceded his resume each year from 2009 until 2011: "Played in all 11 games." On the 2012 paragraph it got even better: "Played and started in all 11 games." Hill is durable, and in two years with the Saints, he has played in 30 of 32 games.
There's more: Hill is that guy that has seemingly always been second. In 2011 he was second on the Idaho State Bengals in receptions with 48. In 2012, he was second on the team in receptions with 70. Yet he is always trending upward: 8.5 yards per catch in 2011, 9.0 yards per catch in 2012 and five touchdowns.
In the 2013 NFL season, his first year with the Saints, he was a blip on the stat sheet: one catch for a loss of eight yards and zero touchdowns. That's actually a little bit less than a blip. Turn the clock to 2014 and here's his stat line: 14 catches, 12.6 yards per reception and five touchdowns.
What's in store for Hill in 2015? With the 124 targets that belonged to Jimmy Graham in 2014 in need of new owners this upcoming season, combined with Hill's history of sturdiness and steady improvement, I'm calling it right now: Josh Hill will be the surprise player for the Saints in the 2015 season. In fact, my way-too-early 2015 stat line for the third year tight end is 50 catches on 70 targets, 630 yards and 7 touchdowns. Marie Laveau knows the Saints badly need this to happen.
What say you? Am I drinking some over-fermented moonshine-spiked Kool Aid or are you with me?