The New Orleans Saints had the NFL's 12th ranked passing attack in 2018. While Drew Brees and the offense didn't rely as heavily on the pass as they had in year's past, the team would get very little production from the tight end position. The Saints tight ends contributed less than 18% of the team's passing yardage and completions (63 catches for 735 yards), and scored only 4 touchdowns collectively. Veteran Benjamin Watson retired at season's end, although later un-retiring to join the New England Patriots. Watson was well past the prime of his career, but was still a locker room leader and even more importantly, a trusted target for Brees. Sean Payton highlighted the position as one of his team's biggest needs heading into this offseason. They were able to address the spot with a potential late round steal in the draft, and also added the biggest name available at the position in free agency. Today our training camp preview looks at what was the Saints weakest position during the 2018 season.
Jared Cook, Alize Mack
New Orleans made a huge free agency splash when they managed to sign Jared Cook, who had played the previous two seasons with the Oakland Raiders. The 32-yr. old Cook is coming into his 11th NFL season, but is playing his best football, and had career highs across the board last year with 68 receptions for 896 yards and 6 touchdowns. The 6'5 254-lb. Cook provides a size mismatch against opposing defensive backs, and his tremendous athleticism is a matchup nightmare for linebackers. The former 3rd round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2009 has been a consistent down field threat throughout his career, and has greatly refined his route running in recent seasons. The Saints expect Cook to develop into a primary receiving threat within the offense, to go along with star weapons Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
New Orleans used their first of two 7th round draft picks on Alize Mack from Notre Dame. Mack has good size at 6'4 249-lbs., to combine with excellent athletic ability and good natural receiving skills to hopefully present another matchup issue for defenses. Mack must sharpen his routes to be effective at the pro level, as well as put aside criticisms about his effort and physicality from college. He particularly showcased his skills as a receiver during his final season with the Fighting Irish, catching 36 passes for 360 yards and 3 scores, and proved that he could make difficult catches in traffic. Possessing the receiving ability of a potential late round draft steal, the Saints hope that Mack could be the future for the team at tight end.
While neither Cook or Mack lend alot as in-line blockers, the team has no such issue with Josh Hill, who enters his seventh season with the team. The 29-yr. old Hill is a valuable asset in the New Orleans rushing attack, and at 6'5 250-lbs. is essentially an extension of the offensive line. Despite numerous opportunities, Hill has never shown that he has the ability to threaten defenses as a receiver. He's averaged 14 receptions for 133 yards over his six seasons, scoring 11 touchdowns. His 16 catches for 185 yards last season were both career highs, and Hill has shown that he can produce in short yardage and goal line situations as a secondary receiver.
While Hill's roster spot is likely safe due to his value as a blocker and experience within the offense. The same may not be able to be said for third year pro Dan Arnold. A converted wide receiver, Arnold spent his rookie year on injured reserve before catching 12 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown in ten games last season. At 6'6 220-lbs., Arnold doesn't add much to the running game, but is a long strider who can get down the seam quickly. The Saints normally keep 3 tight ends on the active roster, which means that Arnold faces the possibility of outplaying Mack this preseason for a spot.
Another uphill battle for a roster spot would seem to belong to Garrett Griffin. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, Griffin has had numerous stints on the Saints practice squad over the last three seasons. He's a decent in-line blocker at 6'4 240-lbs., but is a limited athlete that won't offer much as a receiver. He did have his first career touchdown reception against the Rams in the NFC title game, and could give the coaches second thoughts about keeping a 4th tight end if he's able to stand out this preseason.
The Saints targeted Jared Cook this offseason to upgrade a pass catching corps that produced little outside of Thomas and Kamara, and a tight end unit that was often abysmal. No one expects the type of record setting output the team got from Jimmy Graham from 2011-14, but the Saints clearly need another bonafide threat. Cook has the ability to shift defensive focus away from the other stars, or make the opposition pay for paying too little attention to him. All eyes will be on Cook this preseason to see what influence he has on an offense already littered with Super Bowl caliber talent.