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New Orleans Saints position outlook: Tight end depth took major hit, but should rebound

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If you mention tight end when it comes to the New Orleans Saints and the Sean Payton Era, then you’re bound to hear about how great Jimmy Graham was and then how Benjamin Watson did extremely well as his replacement. That all seems like a distant memory after 2016, as the tight end group might have been the worst part of the team’s offense.

We continue our series that focuses on next year’s Saints by position. Any free agents, free agent targets, players set to return (includes practice squad), and some potential draft options are all considered.

What the Saints are working with

  • Coby Fleener: It goes without saying, but Fleener didn’t have the type of 2016 campaign that fans expected him to. Stacking up to the likes of Graham and Watson, the free agent acquisition clearly had his struggles in the Saints offense. There were times Fleener did some good things, but then there were times that he wasn’t on the same page with Drew Brees and had some bad drops. It’s a crucial year for Fleener, but I’d implore fans to hold off passing their judgment until 2017 is over.
  • Josh Hill: After being tendered by the Saints and an offer was presented by the Bears, Hill stayed in New Orleans after the team matched the 3-year deal. His 2016 wasn’t what he expected, as he dealt with a high-ankle sprain and ended up appearing in just nine games after suffering a broken fibula. The good news is that Hill increased his yardage in fewer games, and only had one less catch and touchdown. When healthy, he’s a big part of the team’s offense.
  • Michael Hoomanawanui: Losing Hooman in preseason was one of the worst things that could happen to the Saints offense, but they were able to deal with it and then some. He just brings a different dynamic when in the mix that you’d have to go back to 2015 to see. He looks to be ready to go for the new season.
  • Garrett Griffin: One of two players returning from the practice squad for the Saints on a reserved/future deal, Griffin remains an intriguing player. He made the squad after tryouts during the team’s three-day rookie minicamp. He’s comparable to Hoomanwanui in the sense that he was used at Air Force in the H-back/fullback role, and was also a long snapper.
  • Jake Stoneburner: His ties run with Dan Campbell in his Dolphins days, and spent the season on the practice squad. After returning on a reserve/future deal, it will be interesting to see what he does during camp since we haven’t exactly seen that much of him with the Saints.

Free Agents

  • John Phillips: Phillips is the lone free agent (unrestricted) tight end the Saints have, and he had some strong moments in run blocking in the eight games he logged for the team. Given the bad luck the team had with tight ends this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Phillips return for training camp, or at least be a future option for the team assuming he doesn’t land elsewhere.

Free Agent targets

I’ll just say that it’s hard to see the Saints targeting any tight ends in the offseason with their big three locked together through 2018. Still, injuries may change the team’s mindset, and there’s a couple of players that could pique their interest.

  • Logan Paulsen: Not many things went right for the Bears, but Paulsen was a bright spot in the running game. Of his 404 total snaps, 60 percent (242) were in run blocking. He won’t flash you catching passes, but he’s been really durable by playing in all games since 2011.
  • Dion Sims: A common theme looking at free agent tight ends is being a run blocker first and a pass catcher second. Sims is certainly one of those. With Jordan Cameron out of action, Sims had the bulk of the work for the Dolphins. He’s sure to garner some interest on the market, but it’s hard to project a large contract coming his way. Like Stoneburner, Sims has ties to Dan Campbell which naturally could make him a fit.
  • Anthony Fasano: The Saints don’t need to spend money bringing in another veteran tight end with their current trio, but he’s a great run blocking option and can also catch passes (although he didn’t do a lot of that for the Titans in 2016). Should the Saints decide to break off from Hill or Hooman, Fasano would be a player to target.

Draft possibilities

Here’s what the Saints could get in the high, mid, and low value out of the NFL Draft.

  • High - Gerald Everett: The top two tight ends in the draft are arguably O.J. Howard and David Njoku. Naturally, a lot can change over the next couple of months, but Everett would be a target I’d pair to the Saints if they drafted one in the 2nd or 3rd Round. He played all 24 games for the Jaguars, but had to miss the team’s bowl game due to a broken pinkie. He finished on the All-Sun Belt First Team in both of his seasons, and there’s a lot to love about the way he makes catches.
  • Mid - Jeremy Sprinkle: Obviously, you’re going to hear a lot of negativity surrounding the Razorbacks product. While it figures to be a big misunderstanding, that is something teams will do their due diligence on. Sprinkle is known more for his blocking ability, but has made some really big catches with his 6-foot-6 frame that teams can’t ignore. He’ll be heading to the NFL Combine, and is a player teams may run up their draft board.
  • Low - Eric Saubert: Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard about this guy, as he comes from Drake University in Iowa. It’s absolutely a small school, but doesn’t make anyone overlook what Saubert is doing for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound tight end is very intriguing, as he fits the bill of a Payton toy. He lines up in the slot and edge, and he can throw some nice blocks. Take a look at some of his film here. He’ll hopefully be on display for the East-West Shrine Game.

In a nutshell

If the Saints tight ends can stay healthy in 2017, then big things can happen. Again, Coby Fleener has a ton of pressure riding on him after failing to live up to large expectations. Whether his criticism is justly deserved or not, he’s going to have to play a bigger role for the offense. Just remember this, the Saints offense still turned in a top unit without big production from their tight ends. However, by getting the tight end game going, it can certainly help with red zone production and help Brees out.