The New Orleans Saints possessed arguably the best receiving tight end in the NFL from 2011-2014 in Jimmy Graham. When Graham was traded in 2015, veteran Ben Watson stepped up his productivity to a near Pro Bowl level. The offseason of 2016 saw the Saints move in a younger direction at the position, allowing Watson to depart in free agency and signing a young, athletic tight end to big deal, and an eye towards the future.
Canal Street Chronicles continues our position-by-position breakdown of the New Orleans Saints as they prepare to open their 2017 training camp. Today, we focus on the position that disappointed many last season, and hopes to rebound in a big way.
Camp Roster: Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui, John Phillips, Clay Harbor, Garrett Griffin
Offseason Losses: none
Offseason Additions: Clay Harbor (free agent)
Fleener was expected to produce video game type of statistics when the Saints signed him to a lucrative five-year contract prior to last season. The results were disappointing to many, as Fleener seemed to struggle picking up the New Orleans offense, and never really settled into a consistent rhythm throughout the season. Fleener actually didn't have an extremely poor season statistically. The Saints passing attack was centered around their three talented wideouts, Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, and Brandin Cooks, and Fleener ranked 4th on the team behind only those three in both receptions and yardage. His 631 yards ranked 13th among NFL tight ends. Although his nearly 62% catch percentage was the second highest in his career, better consistency will be expected from Fleener this season, as well as higher production.
Josh Hill was on his way to the best season of his career, when it was cut short by a broken leg suffered in the team's 12th game. Up to that point, he had started a career-high 8 times, and his 15 receptions for 149 yards were the second highest of his four year career, despite the shortened season. Hill was limited in offseason workouts, but enters training camp fully healthy.
The Saints regain another player from injury in Michael Hoomanawanui, who spent the entire 2016 season on injured reserve. When healthy, "Hooman" was a terrific in-line blocker with underrated receiving ability, particularly in the red zone. John Phillips was signed at mid-season last year, produced 5 catches for 32 yards, and re-signed this offseason to compete for a back-up tight end role.
Garrett Griffin was on the Saints practice squad last season after his graduation from the Air Force Academy. Phillips and Griffin both face an uphill climb to make the team's 53-man roster, although Griffin is once again eligible for the practice squad. A dark horse roster candidate this summer could be free agent Clay Harbor. The 30-year-old veteran has 8 receiving touchdowns in his career, and between 2012-14 averaged 25 receptions for 255 yards per year.
Outlook: After trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots this spring, the Saints offense could once again look to involve their tight ends more in their passing attack. The bulk of targets will still go to star wideouts Michael Thomas and Willie Snead, but the Saints will need a better season from Coby Fleener. Fleener, the most gifted receiver among the tight ends, has had a second offseason to digest the playbook and work with quarterback Drew Brees.
The return to health of both Hill and Hoomanawanui solidifies this position, but Harbor is worth keeping a watch for should either player falter. The Saints pair of starting receivers are as talented as anyone in the league, and they possess a talented stable of running backs that will be a factor in their passing game. New Orleans will not need Jimmy Graham-type of numbers with this group to be successful, but they will need better production than what was shown in 2016 to continue to be a dangerous offense.