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Big Ben Watson returns to Saints: what it means, and what it doesn’t

The new number one tight end is the old number one tight end.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) lines up before a play against the New York Giants defense during a 2015 game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) lines up before a play against the New York Giants defense during a 2015 game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Tight end was a position of high priority for the New Orleans Saints for good reason entering free agency. The Saints had the fewest targets go to tight ends in the NFL last year (63) and saw their offense evolve into a more run-based attack that relegated the usually-versatile big bodies to blocking duty. It became clearer than ever that the house built by guys like Jimmy Graham, Jeremy Shockey, and Benjamin Watson was sitting empty.

Saints head coach Sean Payton admitted as such this week, explaining that tight end was one of several “musts” the team had to address ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft. He emphasized that this decision had little to no flexibility, being an important box to check in order for New Orleans to execute its draft strategy. That came to fruition with the return of former Benjamin Watson, who left New Orleans for a two-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens back in 2016.

Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 project tasks its scouts with position groups to watch every week throughout the NFL season. Every week they hand out grades that are finalized at the end into cumulative rankings. So there is at least one reputable source that is a fan of Watson, ranking him seventh among eighty-seven qualifiers last year:

Benjamin Watson keeps compiling a decent career as each season passes. He’s a trusted receiver and a good blocker. Baltimore used Watson often as a checkdown option or a short safe target. Watson has developed from a move tight end to a guy who can also block inline. The Ravens’ running game did a great job of putting him in advantageous positions to win as a blocker.

—NFL1000 AFC wide receivers-tight ends scout Joe Goodberry

Like every other receiver in Baltimore’s 2017 offense, Watson was limited by constricting play-calling and Joe Flacco’s inconsistency at quarterback. He was good for a bunch of four-yard out routes and the occasional slant or drag route. When he was dispatched to run a deeper post or an over route, he showed the capacity to get open with blocking strength and quick cuts.

—NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar

If you’re curious, the NFL1000 scouts were down on the Saints tight ends in 2017 - in order, they ranked Hoomanawanui at 81 out of 87, Fleener at 69 of 87, and Hill the relative best option at 28 of 87. That’s not great.

So that paints a picture of Watson as something the Saints sorely missed last year - a short-range safety valve when the primary reads (often Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara) were smothered, particularly on third down. Watson was better than all of the Saints’ tight ends on that critical third down last season, converting seven of his fifteen targets (46.6-percent) against New Orleans’ combined five of twelve (41.6-percent).

Watson’s return means a few bad things for New Orleans’ fringe players at tight end, particularly Michael Hoomanwanui, Garrett Griffin, and eventually Coby Fleener. Watson is immediately the best option in the room, demoting Josh Hill to the second spot, and beginning a competition for the third and final roster spot between those three guys - at least initially.

I’m of the opinion that Fleener is only being kept around as an (expensive) insurance policy in case the Saints are not able to draft a rookie tight end. Should they fail to address that, they can ride out his contract another year and part ways in 2019, creating $5.8-million in salary cap savings.

However, I fully expect the Saints to find their future tight end in next month’s draft. They are actively doing their homework into the top prospects, setting up formal interviews and predraft visits, and should be able to take their pick of the bunch early in the draft. If that happens, expect Fleener to be designated a post-June 1st release and free up $3-million in cap room, which should be just enough to sign this year’s draft class.

So theoretically we could see the Saints go into training camp with a tight end unit of Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, and a talented rookie (please be Dallas Goedert, Mike Gesciki, or Hayden Hurst). That’s a far cry from the group Brees has struggled to work with in recent years.

To recap: Watson’s signing means that the Saints now have the security to avoid reaching on a tight end in the draft. If the value matches up with their evaluations and a rookie tight end is the best player available, expect them to pick one. But now they don’t have to do it out of necessity.

It doesn’t mean that they will avoid drafting a new face at tight end altogether, however. Watson is in the final years of his playing career and the Saints need to establish some continuity at the position for the future. His presence essentially bumps tight end down from a “must” on the list of draft priorities to a “want”. It’s safe to keep wishing for Gesicki.