Throughout his time with the Saints, Sean Payton has displayed a knack for finding undrafted free agents and turning them into steady contributors for the offense. Travaris Cadet, Lance Moore (cut from Cleveland), and most notably Pierre Thomas are all examples, and now the next undrafted gem could be converted tight end Dan Arnold. At 6’6” and displaying above average athletic skills, Dan Arnold could be the mismatch tight end that Payton likes to use in his offense.
Playing wide receiver at division-III Wisconsin–Platteville, Arnold put up 1176 yards and 16 touchdowns on only 65 receptions in his senior season. He would then go undrafted in the 2017 NFL draft, but earned a contract after a rookie tryout during Saints minicamp. His rookie season would be cut short by injury and he would spend all of last season on injured reserve. It was at this time when the Saints staff decided to convert him to tight end. This year he would make the final 53 man roster, beating out other veteran tight ends, but wouldn’t be activated until week 5 against the Washington Redskins.
Since then, Arnold has continued to see his role in the offense increase in each game. In his second game against the Ravens he pulled in two catches on 3 targets for 35 yards. And while he was only targeted once for no receptions in the next two games, Drew Brees went to him on a critical third down play late in the game against the Los Angeles Rams, showing a trust from Brees and Payton in his abilities. Against Cincinnati, he played 27 snaps (Watson had 28 for comparison) and was targeted 3 times, coming down with two receptions and falling a yard short of his first touchdown.
On this play right outside of the red-zone, the Saints will run a smash concept with Arnold and Alvin Kamara to the boundary side of the field (offense’s right). The smash concept consists of two routes, intended to place a zone defender in the flat in conflict by forcing him to choose to defend either the deep route (typically a corner route) or an underneath route, such as a hitch or flat route.
Arnold will run the 15 yard corner route and Kamara will run a hitch underneath. The cornerback KeiVarae Russel (#20) is the flat defender being targeted by the smash. The underneath route by Kamara causes him to pause just long enough for Arnold to get into the soft spot, or “honey hole” between the deep and underneath zone. Once Arnold makes the catch, he stretches out for the endzone but is forced out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
Another positive of Arnold developing is it gives Payton the opportunity to draw up pass plays from three tight end sets. While this formation is typically used in the run game, having three reliable tight ends who are capable receivers can create mismatches for the offense against a defense’s base personnel.
The Saints come out with their 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) on a 3rd and 2. As mentioned above, the down and distance added to the formation indicates a run. The defense will play it accordingly by putting 8 defenders in the box. The Saints will run a version of a “mesh concept” that aims to create a rub in the middle of the field by the two crossing routes. Arnold and Watson are the crossers here, while Josh Hill will run a curl over the middle. Brees will feel some pressure from the interior of the line, but is able to get the pass off to Arnold who gets just enough for the first down.
While Arnold was able to make the catch and pick up the first down, this is a good example of the need to improve his route running. Being the under crosser—meaning his route will go under Watson’s—he should have broke his stem inside sooner and not as vertically. This threw off the timing of the play and took away any opportunity for yards after the catch.
While he still needs to learn the nuances of the tight end position, his receiving ability can still be seen on this catch against the Baltimore Ravens.
Arnold does a good job at fending off the safety’s hand-check and maintaining his balance, then adjusts to the back shoulder throw from Brees. And while the ball was placed in a great spot, not many young tight ends would be able to make that adjustment while fighting off a safety of Tony Jefferson’s caliber.
Although the recent signing of Brandon Marshall could possibly take away some targets from Arnold’s direction, if he can continue to work and progress in all the traits needed to be an NFL tight end, he has the chance to add his name to the list of Payton’s undrafted gems.