Saints Positional Previews: Tight Ends
November 5, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) dunks over the goal post after scoring a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the third quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Easgles 28-13. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
We’ve previously looked at the Quarterbacks & Running Backs in our multi-part mini-series on Positional Previews. Now we will shift focus to the Tight Ends, the ever changing hybrid natured position in today’s game.
Jimmy Graham, 26, is entering the final season of his contract in 2013. Graham’s best season with the Black & Gold came in 2011, where he battled it out with Rob Gronkowski for best Tight End honors, a battle that Gronkowski narrowly won. Graham finished that campaign with 99 receptions, 1,310 yards, and 11 touchdowns – nearly unheard of for a Tight End, but in today’s game, he put Wide Receivers to shame. As for 2012, he did have a very down year, and by down, we’re talking 85 receptions, 982 yards, and 9 touchdowns. He did miss one game last season after that gruesome ankle injury against San Diego, and led all Tight Ends (and the league) with 15 dropped balls. It would later come out that Graham had an extremely troublesome wrist injury, which required offseason surgery to fix. The good news is Graham is doing well, and it is fairly evident with his Superdome Fly Overs. What also can be stated is Graham played through the pain, and his grit is admirable. Arguably, his most memorable moment of the 2012 season came against Dallas, where his hustle & awareness allowed him to recover a Marques Colston fumble that found its way near the Dallas goal line, and that effort would set up a Garrett Hartley overtime winning field goal. One would think that the fan favorite will not be going anywhere after this season, but the reports are he could be commanding as much as $12M/year on his new deal. For 2013, we will and can’t wait to see that Jimmy Graham of 2011 emerge. Look for Jimmy to get back to being a 1,000 yard receiver easily.
Ben Watston, 32, a former 1st Round Pick in the NFL with the Patriots in 2004, enters to replace the departed David Thomas after spending the previous 3 seasons with the Browns. Watston played in all 16 games for the Browns last season, and caught 49 passes for 501 yards with 3 touchdowns. His best game last season arguably came against Dallas, where caught 4 passes for 47 yards, and 2 of those balls were touchdown grabs, in a game where the Cowboys squeaked out an overtime victory 23-20. Watson brings his veteran status to the Saints, and could help greatly in the development of the younger tight ends. He may not see as much play time as he did in Cleveland as the featured Tight End, but still expect Watson to come in handy more times than not.
Michael Higgins, 25, was re-signed as a Restricted Free Agent on February 14th. He enters his 3rd season as a Saint, and we all know his role is mainly as a blocking tight end. He’s slotted currently as the team’s 3rd option on the depth chart, and we will likely not see much from Higgins in terms of the receiving game, but more for his role in blocking in the run game. Of the Saints 1,107 Offensive Plays in 2012, Higgins only participated in 1.9% of those, which would be 21 plays for you math majors. Look for Payton to use his ‘rugged blocking’ style in a few more situations this season.
Keavon Milton, the 22-year old undrafted rookie from the University of Louisana-Monroe, transitioned from a defensive end to tight end as a junior. Reportedly, for what it’s worth, the Saints were in contention with the 49ers & Cowboys for Milton after the draft. At pro day, he also did some offensive tackle drills. At 6’4”, 293 pounds, Milton could potentially be someone Sean Payton could use as a 6th option for blocking on the Offensive Line, and it makes sense, as Payton has stated he wants to run the ball more in 2013. He has a good bit of upside in terms of athleticism. He may not flash right away, but he is one to watch in terms of growth.
Graham, coupled with the addition of Ben Watson, can and will cause fits for opposing defenses. The two tight end threat is an evolution that continues to flourish in the NFL. Teams continue to struggle to figure out how to match up against Graham, and he uses that 6’7” height to his advantage. You will continue to see Graham in Wide Receiver looks, and will be an integral part of the Saints successes on offense for 2013.