The New Orleans Saints officially begin training camp on July 26th. By all accounts, the team has had a successful offseason, upgrading many perceived positions of need with draft picks and free agent signings. One area that most expected the Saints to address highly in the draft was passed on by the team, however. New Orleans tight ends were responsible for only around 11% of the team's receptions and yardage output in 2017, combining for 476 yards on 45 receptions and 4 touchdowns. In today's training camp preview, we take a look at perhaps the most glaring weakness on an otherwise talented roster over the last two seasons.
Key Losses: Coby Fleener (released)
Key Additions: Benjamin Watson (free agent, Ravens)
The Saints parted ways with Fleener this offseason, a high priced free agent acquisition in 2016 from the Indianapolis Colts. Fleener, released in part due to ongoing concussion issues, had 72 receptions for 926 yards and five touchdowns in 26 games as a Saint. His first season in New Orleans was average (50-631, 3), but he was unable to provide a consistent threat in the middle or down the field as the Saints had hoped when signing him. New Orleans did bring back an old friend, re-signing Ben Watson away from the Baltimore Ravens. Watson, a 37-yr old veteran entering his 15th season, led the Ravens in receptions (61) and receiving touchdowns (4) a year ago while finishing second on the team in receiving yards. Watson had previously played for New Orleans from 2013-15, and his 74 receptions for the Saints in 2015 ranked second on the team, while his 824 yards receiving that year ranked third. It was the highest receiving output by a Saints tight end other than Jimmy Graham since Henry Childs in 1979, and the 6th best production in team history at the position. Watson is more than a receiving threat and trusted target of quarterback Drew Brees. He is also one of the league's better blockers at tight end, and an outstanding locker room leader.
Josh Hill has not progressed as a receiver like the team had hoped when they traded Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. Over the last four years, Hill has had 14, 16, 15, and 16 receptions for an average of 142 yards per year. He does show some downfield potential as a receiver, and a penchant for getting open around the goal line, but has never been able to do it consistently. Hill is a very good blocker, often starting games over Fleener due to Fleener's liability as a blocker. Hill's value to the Saints offense lies far more with his blocking ability than that as a receiver, but he could strengthen his roster position by becoming a more reliable target in the passing game.
One roster spot that could be in jeopardy is that of Michael Hoomanawanui. Used almost exclusively as an extra blocker, the 30-yr. old Hoomanawanui has caught 17 passes for 128 yards and 4 touchdowns for the Saints since being acquired in a 2015 trade with the New England Patriots. He offers little downfield range as a receiver, but is certainly a valuable asset in the running game, particularly short yardage. Garrett Griffin enters his third training camp with New Orleans, after spending most of the last two years on the practice squad. He has one career catch, and looks to be a longshot for a roster spot. Deon Yelder attracted alot of attention at the team's OTA's and mini-camp practices last month, and could push Hoomanawanui and Hill for roster spots. An undrafted rookie from Western Kentucky, he didn't have a reception until his senior season, when he caught the attention of scouts with 52 catches for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns. Yelder shows good ability as a blocker, has good straight line speed, and is a load to bring down in the open field. He doesn't have great change of direction fluidity, and is very inexperienced as a route runner. Yelder looks like a potentially exciting player to watch at camp, but a developmental prospect for sure, who could benefit greatly from the leadership and tutelage of a veteran like Watson.
The Saints offense no longer relies on heavy production from the tight end, as was the case when Graham starred for the team. New Orleans boasts the league's best tandem of running backs in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, one of the NFL's best receivers in Michael Thomas, a powerful offensive line, and a Hall of Fame quarterback still playing near the top of his game with Drew Brees. Despite all that, the Saints offense ranked just 19th in 3rd down efficiency in 2017, unacceptable and unheard of for a Sean Payton offense. Benjamin Watson's reunion with New Orleans could be an underrated offseason move. The team is hoping that Watson can continue to be a two way threat, giving even more versatility to it's base and short yardage personnel. The additions Cameron Meredith and rookie Tre'quan Smith at wide receiver should also help change the Saints' third down struggles, but the team must get better production from it's tight ends in 2018.