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April 30th is looming and rightfully so everybody is eyeing the best edge rusher, offensive lineman, wide receiver, linebacker and so on but today I’m going to play the devils advocate taking a look at the tight end situation. To put things in perspective first lets take a stroll down memory lane and get a little history on how Sean Payton has shaped the position.

Throughout Sean Payton’s tenure as the Saints head coach the tight end position has been a blessing and an enigma for him. When coach took the helm in 2006 he inherited Ernie Cromwell, Lamont Hall, Zach Hilton and Nate Lawrie from the dismal 3-13 2005 squad.

Just click on those names and you get an idea of what Payton had to work with.

Payton got rid of everybody except Cromwell.

Payton’s first year he brought in the Texan’s cast off Billy Miller along with journeymen Mark Campbell and John Owen. Only Miller would show a glimpse of potential getting better in all three years he was with the club until he tore an  Achilles Tendon before the 2009 season got underway.

In 2007 Payton brought in a couple of more deadheads to the roster to go along with Miller and Owens with the signings of Eric Johnson and Ronnie Ghent. 

By the time 2008 rolled around Payton decided it was time to finally address the shortcomings at the tight end position bringing in Jeremy Shockey via a trade with the New York Giants in exchange for 2009’s 2nd & 5th round picks. With Shockey the Saints acquired a four-time pro bowl player in the prime of his career (28 yrs old) but like when Shockey was with the Giants he would battle various injuries during his time with the Saints. The Saints also brought in a free agent camp body Buck Ortega.

At the start of the Saints Super Bowl season, or I should say the last preseason game, Miller suffered a season ending Achilles injury. A few days later the Saints would trade their 2011 6th round draft pick to New England in exchange for tight end Dave Thomas. The Saints would make it through the Season with Shockey, Thomas, Ortega and two new journeymen – Darnell Dinkins and Tory Humphrey.

Only Shockey (48 balls for 569 yards)  and Thomas (35 balls for 356 yards) would make a dent,  let that sink in for a minute when you think about the Graham trade, the Saints won the Super Bowl with an often injured TE, a guy they traded for the 1st week of the season and three other players that couldn’t even contribute.

I think Sean Payton seen the writing on the wall with Shockey and his injuries following the 2009 season and was going to target a tight end in the 2010 draft, of course he did and we all know who he went after – Jimmy Graham out of Miami.

On a side note I remember going to the Saints mini camp in 2010 fresh off their championship. That place was a zoo but even though I went to see the Lombardi, I also went specifically to check out this new tight end Jimmy Graham. The first think that stuck out of course was his size but I also remember how raw he was. So I made my way over to watch the TE positional drills (Shockey looked bored) and the coach pulled Graham to the side and did individual work with him (getting off blocks, hand/arm technique, lining up correctly and so on) As I walked away I remember thinking this guy looks the part but is probably just a project. I look back and have to laugh at that day, boy was I wrong.

Moving on…By the start of the 2010 season Payton finally had a decent tight end corps with Shockey, Graham, Thomas and Humphrey (who was primarily a blocker). I think as the season went on Payton had seen enough of Graham (31 balls for 356 yards) to move on from Shockey and make Graham a central part of the offense with Thomas in a complimentary role.

Payton couldn’t have been more right as Graham exploded off the charts in 2011 with an unheard of 99 catches for 1,310 yards.

When 2011 got underway the Saints went into the season with Jimmy Graham, Dave Thomas, free agent veteran John Gilmore (with Michael Higgins as a practice squad prospect)  Unfortunately for Thomas he was banged up all year and by November the Saints placed Thomas on injured reserve with a severe concussion – Higgins was then promoted to the active roster.

The Saints would go into the 2012 season with Graham, Thomas, Higgins and free agent pick up Daniel Graham (Graham was so horrible he was released in November) Dave Thomas, while he played in 15 games was never the same player he was before his concussion problems and was a non factor only catching 11 balls for 86 yards. Jimmy Graham carried the load again catching 85 balls for 982 yards.

When Sean Payton returned from his suspension in 2013 one of the first things he did in free agency was target a tight end signing Benjamin Watson to a three-year deal. The Saints also brought in a player that I’m high on – an undrafted free agent tight end out of Idaho, Josh Hill. Jimmy Graham once again was the work horse catching 86 balls for 1,215 yards, Graham was rolling along until he hit a brick wall up in New England.

Bill Belichick was not going to let Jimmy Graham beat him, in an unconventional move Belichick put a corner back on him throughout the game (mainly Aqib Talib) and held him to zero catches. But it wasn’t until later on in the season when the Seattle Seahawks laid down the blue print to neutralize Graham – beat him up at the line of scrimmage….teams took notice, Graham would finish the season after that Seattle game with receiving yard games of 42, 58, 25, 73 and 71 yards.

The Saints kept everything the same in 2014 with Graham, Watson and Hill but during the season, as insurance, they added former Bengals 2012 4th round pick Orson Charles to the practice squad.

Okay what kind of pattern have we seen with regards to tight ends under Sean Payton? A chaotic mess that’s what. Kidding aside what we have seen is Payton trade for two (Shockey and Thomas) draft one fairly early (Graham) and target one in free agency (Watson) the rest have been Journeymen/over the hill castoffs and development projects.

Even though Payton professed his love for Josh Hill, do you really think the Saints are going to go into the 2015 season with Watson, Hill and Charles as their only tight ends on the roster? Of course not. Will the Saints go the route of grabbing a veteran free agent still on the market? History says they will – or will they? The tight end pool is pretty thin. Here is a list of some notable players still available.

Jermaine Gresham ~ Age 29, just had back surgery.
Zach Miller ~ Age 29
James Casey ~ Age 30
Rob Housler ~ Age 27
Bear Pascoe ~ Age 29

I think you can scratch Gresham off this list with his recent surgery to repair a herniated disc, the two I would like the Saints to take a look at is Zach Miller and Rob Housler. If Miller is healthy I really think he’s worth a look but that’s a big if in regards to his health, last November Miller landed on IR after his ankle was slow responding to surgery. Before his injury he was just an average TE for Seattle but I think that has more to do because of scheme than his abilities, he was a much more explosive tight end in his four years with Oakland.

Housler on the other hand is entering his 5th year but for some reason after having solid seasons in 2012 and 2013 he fell off a cliff last year only catching nine balls. If you’re looking for a blocking tight end then Housler isn’t your man but if you’re looking for a TE who has the ability to get down the field, then Housler fits the bill. Back at the 2011 NFL combine Housler posted a 4.46 40 time. Not bad for someone who at the time was 6-5′ 248lbs.

The next question is – will the Saints draft a tight end? I’m torn on this, I think they do but I don’t have a clue as to how high are they willing to go to draft one. Here are the top prospects according to CBS Sports.

Rank Player Pos. Pos. Rank School Class Ht. Wt. Proj. Round
28 *Maxx Williams TE 1 Minnesota rSo 6-4 249 1-2
61 Clive Walford TE 2 Miami (Fla.) rSr 6-4 251 2
91 Jeff Heuerman TE 3 Ohio State Sr 6-5 254 3
106 MyCole Pruitt TE 4 Southern Illinois rSr 6-2 251 3-4
113 *Jesse James TE 5 Penn State Jr 6-7 261 3-4
126 Ben Koyack TE 6 Notre Dame Sr 6-5 255 4
130 *Tyler Kroft TE 7 Rutgers rJr 6-5 246 4
147 Nick O’Leary TE 8 Florida State Sr 6-3 252 4-5
172 Blake Bell TE 9 Oklahoma rSr 6-6 252 5
190 Wes Saxton TE 10 South Alabama Sr 6-3 248 5-6
197 Nick Boyle TE 11 Delaware Sr 6-4 268 5-6
212 Casey Pierce TE 12 Kent State rSr 6-3 244 6
230 E.J. Bibbs TE 13 Iowa State Sr 6-2 258 6-7
249 Gerald Christian TE 14 Louisville rSr 6-3 244 7

In my opinion this is a below average draft class for tight ends and some players will probably be drafted higher than they should.

Max Williams is the cream of the crop in this draft class, I just don’t know if the Saints are willing to spend the 31st pick to draft him. Make no mistake though some team will draft him not far from this draft slot. Teams are always trying to find the next Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, just take a look at the Bills overpaying for free agent pick up Charles Clay with $24,500,000 in guaranteed money.

On player I would like to see the Saints take a shot on in the middle rounds is Tyler Kroft out of Rutgers. While Kroft does have decent size 6′ 5″ 246lbs I would like to see him add about 10-15 pounds just for the rigors of NFL blocking. At Rutgers he wasn’t a bad blocker heck you might even say he was a scrappy blocker but at times he did have problems with bigger defenders.

I also think this kid as a ton of upside in the passing game, Rutgers at times used him almost like a wide out lining him up in the slot and sometimes on the outside. I thought he was most effective in the passing game when he lined up next to the tackle and was able to get isolated with a linebacker. The Saints have two 3rd round picks, if Kroft is there they should give him a good hard look.

Another option the Saints have is to use Eric Lorig as a blocking tight end. With the emergence of Austin Johnson – who was inserted into the lineup when Lorig had that lingering leg injury to start the season, he has more than showed he is capable of holding it down.

Lorig has experience at the position having played in his freshman year at college, I’m not saying make Lorig a full-time starter there, just at times in situational football.

Who knows how this will all shake out by the time the OTA’s kick off but one thing is certain, the Saints will take action here – the only question is….what route will they take?