Once the New Orleans Saints 2017 season came to an end, Saints coach Sean Payton immediately highlighted the team's offseason desire to add additional 'pass catchers' for quarterback Drew Brees. Many assumed that would mean that the team would focus on upgrading the tight end position, an area of weakness over the previous year. A large number of draft projections had the Saints selecting a tight end within the first two days of the draft. Surprising to some, they did not draft a tight end at all, despite what appeared to be a deep and talented class. New Orleans also released Coby Fleener, a high priced free agent signee in 2016, but one who had failed to live up to lofty expectations. The Saints made an attempt to bring back Jimmy Graham via free agency after his exit from Seattle. Graham starred for the Saints from 2010-'14, but was traded to the Seahawks in the 2015 offseason. He ultimately spurned the Saints offer and signed with Green Bay. New Orleans did bring back Benjamin Watson, who was productive for the team from 2013-'15. Watson, a 37-yr. old veteran, will be entering his 14th NFL season, but had a solid year last season for the Baltimore Ravens, leading them in receptions and receiving scores. A closer look at Payton's coaching history shows us that the tight end position perhaps isn't as important in his offensive philosophy as many might think. Today we take a glance at the tight end production from each of the coach's NFL stops.
Philadelphia Eagles (1997-1998)
Payton's first professional football coaching job was with the Eagles, after nine seasons as an offensive assistant at the collegiate level. He was the quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' staff, working under offensive coordinator Jon Gruden. Philly had the league's 6th most productive passing attack in 1997, but finished a lowly 30th the next season. Jimmie Johnson, Jason Dunn, and Chad Lewis were the team's primary tight ends, but not big parts of the passing game on a roster largely devoid of talent. In 1997, Johnson and Lewis combined for 26 receptions for 271 yards and 5 scores. Dunn was the leading producer in '98, with just 18 catches for 132 yards and no touchdowns. Payton and Rhodes were both fired after a 3-13 season in 1998.
New York Giants (1999-2002)
Payton worked under Giants head coach Jim Fassel after leaving Philadelphia, and was in charge of the offensive game planning for the first time in his career as an NFL assistant. The Giants had a top 10 passing attack in three of Payton's four years with them, although he was stripped of play calling duties in 2002, leading to his departure from New York. The Giants quarterback during Payton's tenure was Kerry Collins, a major upgrade in talent from the carousel of Rodney Peete, Ty Detmer, and Bobby Hoying in Philadelphia. The leading tight end their first year together was Pete Mitchell, who was 4th on the team in receptions (58) and receiving yardage (520) while adding 3 touchdowns. The following season Mitchell again led the Giants tight ends, but his numbers dropped to 25-245, 1. Dan Campbell, currently the Saints tight end coach, added 3 touchdowns on just 8 catches, and starter Howard Cross was mostly utilized as a blocker. Campbell led the New York tight ends in receiving production the next year (2001), but only had 13 catches for 148 yards and one touchdown. In 2002, the Giants used the 14th selection of the 1st round to draft star tight end Jeremy Shockey from Miami (Fla.). Shockey would earn All-Pro honors as a rookie, catching 74 passes for 894 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Campbell added 22 catches for 175 yards and a score. A strained relationship with Fassel caused Payton to depart New York following the 2002 season, and he accepted a position with one of the Giants most bitter rivals.
Dallas Cowboys (2003-2005)
Payton's close relationship with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells is well-known, and he was Parcells' assistant coach for three seasons in Dallas. Payton worked with three different quarterbacks over his three years with the Cowboys (Quincy Carter, Vinny Testeverde, and Drew Bledsoe), for an offense that was consistently around the middle of the league in passing yardage. Dan Campbell (20 catches, 195 yards, 1 touchdown) followed Payton from New York to Dallas and helped transition a rookie 3rd round pick named Jason Witten (35-347, 1) into the Cowboys offense. Witten earned his first of many Pro Bowl bids the following year, when in 2004 he led Dallas in catches (87) and touchdowns (6), while finishing second on the team with 980 yards receiving. Witten repeated his Pro Bowl feat in 2005, catching 66 passes for 757 yards and six scores, while Campbell was the second best producing tight end on the roster, with just three catches for 24 yards and a score.
New Orleans Saints (2006-present)
Sean Payton left Dallas to accept his first head coaching job with New Orleans in 2006, joining both a franchise and a city that was in complete rebuilding mode. Joining Payton was of course Drew Brees, and the two have spearheaded a historically productive passing attack over the last eleven seasons. The tight end was not a big weapon in their first season together, as Mark Campbell and Billy Miller combined for 32 receptions, 293 yards, and no scores. Miller (27-328, 2) teamed with Eric Johnson (48-378, 2) in '07 to lead the New Orleans tight end unit. The Saints traded for Jeremy Shockey, reuniting him with Payton, prior to the 2008 season. Shockey led all Saints tight ends that year in receptions (50), while adding 483 yards and 3 touchdowns, with Billy Miller providing a solid 1-2 punch at the position with 45 catches, 579 yards, and a score. Payton tried to reunite with another old friend in 2009, signing Dan Campbell as a free agent, but Campbell suffered a season ending knee injury in preseason that subsequently forced his retirement. Shockey again led the way at tight end for the eventual Super Bowl champions, catching 48 passes for 569 yards and 3 touchdowns on the year, while David Thomas chipped in 35-356yds. and 1 touchdown. Shockey continued to struggle with nagging injuries that plagued his whole career in 2010, but still led the team's tight ends with 41 catches for 408 yards and 3 scores on the year, while Thomas added 30-219, 2. The Saints had used a 3rd round draft choice that spring on a University of Miami tight end named Jimmy Graham, who caught 31 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns on the year, in just a preview of what was to come.
Graham's success with the Saints from 2011-'14 was historic, and he was one of the most dominant weapons in the entire league. In 2011, he caught 11 touchdown passes, and his 99 receptions for 1,310 yards that year are the second best single season marks among tight ends in NFL history. He was again dominant in 2012, leading the Saints with 85 catches for 982 yards and 9 scores. Graham's 16 touchdown receptions in 2013 is the second best single season total for tight ends in NFL history, as he added 86 catches for 1,215 yards, again earning All-Pro honors. Graham's 2014 was another Pro Bowl campaign, catching 85 passes for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The trade of Graham during the 2015 offseason was shocking to many, but did little to deter the Saints offensive production. Watson stepped up to have a solid year in 2015, catching 74 balls for 825 yards and 6 touchdowns. Watson's departure as a free agent following the year caused New Orleans to sign Coby Fleener, in hopes of duplicating Graham's downfield athleticism. Fleener did catch 50 passes for 631 yards and 3 scores in 2016, but was a disappointment to many who expected better production. Fleener's 2017 season ended in disappointment as well, catching just 22 passes for 295 yards and 2 touchdowns before a concussion ended his year after 11 games. Five year veteran Josh Hill had been expected to develop into a factor at tight end, particularly after five touchdowns on just 14 receptions as Graham and Watson's backup in 2014. Hill hasn't developed as hoped, struggling with injuries and averaging just 16 catches and 131 yards per year in the three seasons since Graham's departure.
Sean Payton was true to his word, adding pass receivers for his veteran quarterback when signing former Bears wideout Cameron Meredith in free agency, then adding Central Florida wide receiver Tre'quan Smith with a 3rd round draft pick. While perhaps surprising that the Saints didn't add a tight end through the draft, the New Orleans receiving corps as a whole looks to be a better unit than a year ago. Graham's success while with the Saints, while amazing, was not indicative of the normal tight end usage in a Sean Payton offense over the last 21 years as an NFL coach. Outside of the four seasons when Graham was the primary receiving option, the top tight end in Payton's offenses averaged 39 catches for 474 yards and 3 touchdowns. Even factoring Graham's production, the average went only slightly up to 64 receptions for 750 yards and 6 scores. The Saints 3rd down percentage was just 37.6% in 2017, ranking 19th in the league and the lowest of Payton's coaching tenure in New Orleans. Much of that was blamed on the team's pathetic production from their tight ends. They added big bodied receivers with the additions of Smith and Meredith, and Watson is a trusted target that knows the Saints offensive system. Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are already among the best weapons in the league, and the New Orleans pass targets again look to be a deep and talented unit.