The New Orleans Saints tried to get a tight end for-now-and-the-future in the 2018 NFL Draft, but didn’t. It wasn’t for lack of trying - evaluating the position was one of their first offseason priorities, based off Senior Bowl meetings, NFL Scouting Combine interviews, and private workouts around the country. Their valuations of prospects just never aligned with their draft positioning.
Maybe one of the undrafted rookies makes a great impression at this weekend’s minicamp tryouts. Cam Serigne and Deon Yelder are already popular names among fans. But in the wake of Coby Fleener’s release and with just three tight ends with NFL experience on the roster - Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, and Michael Hoomanawanui - the Saints can’t afford to just let things ride out at such an important position group.
So that’s why I want to see them emulate the wheeling and dealing player-for-player trades we’re seeing out of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. Send an asset to the Pittsburgh Steelers for tight end Jesse James. Just 24-years old and entering his fourth season, James towers over opponents at 6-foot-7, 261-pounds. His 2015 Scouting Combine results wouldn’t wow you in the 40-yard dash (4.86-seconds) but both his vertical and broad jumps broke the 85th-percentile. He clearly has some natural explosion to his game.
Jesse James make C.J. Mosley slip with the suddenness of his route. Now I’ve seen everything. pic.twitter.com/UEbSKTrPG7— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 12, 2017
The compensation doesn’t really matter in my nihilist scenario, but I’d be fine with shipping someone like Vonn Bell out for James. Bell hasn’t stepped up to be the commanding presence on the back end the Saints have envisioned, and I’m not confident he starts over Kurt Coleman as the starting box safety who can drop deep alongside Marcus Williams. Pittsburgh seems to always need safety help, and Bell could make that happen for them.
Back to the point: James is a reliable receiving option at tight end who also gets plenty of work as a blocker. He’s possibly available thanks to last year’s trade for Vance McDonald from the San Francisco 49ers, who patiently waited until Steel City’s playoff run to lead the team in targets (16) and take the reins as the lead tight end. James also had a sideline dustup with a coach during an October game against the Cincinnati Bengals, so he may not exactly be in the team’s good graces.
One of my favorite resources to pull from, Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 project, ranked James 37th out of 87 qualified tight ends, with their scouts explaining:
Jesse James is an integral part of the Steelers offense even though the team’s star weapons overshadowed him. If defenses didn’t keep an eye on James, they needed to be prepared for trouble. Pittsburgh often used him as a blocker who sealed the edge for Le’Veon Bell to bounce outside. James is a solid role player. He saw 63 targets and caught 43 of them for 372 yards and three touchdowns.
For context, McDonald clocked in ten spots higher, with the scouts praising his receiving ability and athletic upside. The Saints tight end group couldn’t really compare - Hoomanawanui was the lowest-ranked at 81 (out of 87), with Fleener disappointingly at 69, and Hill at 28. Watson, then playing for the Baltimore Ravens, somehow ruled the roost from the 7th-highest grade.
Back to James: last year, he converted 9 of his 17 targets on third down (52.9-percent), which is much better than it appears. Every tight end on the Saints roster last season combined for just 14 targets on third down, and all 5 of those converted were caught by Fleener (35.7-percent). For what it’s worth, Watson converted 7 of his 15 targets on third down (46.6-percent) for Baltimore.
Getting a tight end who can confidently work on critical downs and cap off long drives into the red zone would be great for the Saints offense. Even with Mark Ingram’s untimely suspension nagging them, New Orleans looks to field an offense that’s wildly tough to defend. Adding a young, largely-untapped talent like James motivated to excel in a contract year could be just the extra spark the Saints need to get to another Super Bowl.