Of some of the best offenses the New Orleans Saints have fielded in the Sean Payton era (the Payton-Drew Brees era is, sadly, over), one thing has been constant: A tight end who stretch the defense. This has been seen in different ways. Jeremy Shockey grinding underneath while blocking. Jimmy Graham’s electric game downfield. Benjamin Watson rediscovering his golden years.
Indeed, Brees had a way of extracting every ounce of talent out of his tight ends. The Saints will have to recapture that energy come 2021, because in addition to having a new quarterback, the Saints have a bunch of unknowns and a quarterback playing tight end next year.
Most Saints fans won’t be sorry to see Jared Cook go. His tenure came to an unceremonious end the moment he fumbled against the Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Round. A lot of things went wrong down the stretch in that game, but if you’re going to point your fingers at one moment, that’s going to be the one.
But without Cook, the Saints nows have Adam Trautman — an unproven sophomore out of Dayton — Nick Vannett, Garrett Griffin and Taysom Hill (for all intents and purposes). If you don’t recognize any of those names, that’s OK.
What matters is how Payton is planning on utilizing them come next season. Normally, Payton is very good at playing to his players’ strengths. The issue? We don’t know them yet.
Plays like these can universally get players open. Jared Cook is located on the innermost slot on this play, and he’s going run duel wheels with the other slot receiver. Meanwhile, the topside receiver is going to run a flat route. This is a simple route to create space against zone coverage.
The first thing to see is how the Saints use motion to catch the Vikings off balance. You can see Harrison Smith directing traffic at the top of the screen. He goes to the middle of the field to cover, and Brees finds a seam in the defense with Cook. The two receivers on the bottom are running skinny posts and fly routes, keeping that side of the field open.
Any tight end can work in this, with the caveat that his timing has to be right and he has to see what his quarterback sees. It’s a simple route that doesn’t have to be perfect, it gives you space to run free as a tight end, and it uses pre-snap motion to create mismatches or throw off zones.
Players like Trautman should be able to do well in that system, and even Taysom Hill can run this type of route. Sieve and leak routes aren’t demanding of crispness, so these types of plays would be good to see early in the season.
This play is actually a really great display of route running from Hill, and it show cases how well he sees the field. Because from watching it, it really looks like Hill flattens himself out in order to beat the zone coverage.
First of all, you see Brees directing traffic pre-snap. It always felt like when he got on one knee like that out of the shotgun, a big play was coming. But Hill makes a great cut out of his post. He goes over the sit route of the topside slot receiver, and underneath the safety. Most importantly he presents a target for Brees, which he hits in traffic. It’s not the crispest route or the cleanest cut, but it gets him space. That’s all you have to do.
Ultimately, how these players do against man coverage is going to be on them. But the Saints can use the spread to create space and confuse defenses. They did that extremely well the past few years.
Unfortunately, there are other factors at play here, and other unknowns. It would be unrealistic to expect Jameis Winston to direct pre-snap like Brees could. These plays could well be the result of him seeing something and moving pieces accordingly. With that in mind, the spread would have to be a bit neutered, as anyone coming in won’t have cart blanche to call hot routes like they’re scripting broken Madden plays.
Instead, Payton will have to have faith in his players. We’ll see just how these young players adjust, as Trautman, Vannett and Griffin are almost total unknowns. We know Trautman will block, but he has to do more in this offense.
The other side is that it would be nice to get Hill off the line more often. Can he play tight end or receiver? Yes. But should he? That’s a different question. The spread lets the Saints open up their passing game.
The other reason tight ends will be more important than ever in the Saints offense is that their receiving corps is... Sparse. Michael Thomas is returning, and after him there are the likes of Tre’Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway and a cavalcade of undrafted players. There’s always a possibility one of them will break out, but you can’t count on that.
For Payton, creativity will be key. These are two examples of him using his offense in ways that are easy to run, not too dependent on perfect route running, or demanding of the quarterback and receivers.
Next year, we might be seeing a lot of teams running man against the Saints, so expect to see a lot of spread midway through the season. And with the spread offense, expect to see tight ends inside on the strong side. That’s where Payton likes to have them, and that’s where they work best. The bottom line is he’ll have to trust his players, but they’ll have to give him a reason to trust him early and often.
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