They told Josh Hill he couldn’t make it.
He wasn’t good enough. He was going to fail. No one wanted him.
It doesn’t matter that those are old wounds, since healed over as he silenced the doubters. It doesn’t matter that he’s stuck around for two years and has earned the confidence of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.
To Hill, he’ll always be an undrafted tight end with something more to prove.
“Just always have that chip on your shoulder that somebody came in thinking you couldn’t play,” Hill said Tuesday at Ethel Schoeffner Elementary in Destrehan, where he was speaking to students as part of the NFL’s Play 60 campaign. “Couldn’t make it.”
To the Saints, Hill isn’t just some undrafted guy looking to carve out a living in the NFL. They expect him to thrive. They expect him, to some degree, to gloss over the loss of tight end Jimmy Graham, who was traded to the Seattle Seahawks a few weeks ago.
That’s a big burden for Hill to carry. He’s shown glimmers of promise and athleticism, sometimes appearing as slightly smaller version of Graham on film over the past two seasons. But this is still a player who has made 20 catches for 220 yards since 2013.
His new responsibility comes with some pressure packed in. He said he doesn’t feel it but acknowledges that some degree of pressure exists. He also said he’ll be ready for whatever the coaching staff asks of him next season.
“I think it might open a few opportunities for me,” Hill said. “I’m just going to try to continue to grow in my role and do everything they ask of me and go from there.”
Like everyone else, Hill was caught by surprise when Graham was traded. He found out when his wife told him about the transaction. He didn’t believe it at first.
While he was sad to see a friend and teammate go, Hill knew that meant good things for his role moving forward. He became even more aware of his new standing within the organization when he listened to Payton gush over him at last week’s NFL annual meetings.
Payton legitimately gushed. During the hour the Saints coach spoke with the media, he summoned Hill’s name at least a half-dozen times, sometimes when prompted, other times on his own. At one point, Payton even said he that “loves” Hill as a player.
“You look at his measurables, and he didn’t go to the combine,” Payton said. “Thank God.”
He also noted that Hill compared favorably with the players entering the draft last season and that his measurables were better than the top tight ends in that class.
“If I told you this guy was our third-round draft pick, you’d be excited now,” Payton said. “We’ve just got to get that jersey off his back that says, ‘I came here as a free agent.’ I think we feel like he has a bright future.”
Hill heard his coach saying his name. It was nice to hear, but that’s about it.
“It’s flattering, but it doesn’t change anything,” Hill said.
It’s unlikely that Hill will make people completely forget about Graham all on his own. Few players could do that, but he does have a chance to fill some of the void and potentially thrive with a larger role.
However, it’s projected him into Graham’s role. The former Saints tight end did the bulk of his damage on out routes, hitches, go routes and crossing routes. Hill was targeted only 20 times last season. The sample size is small, but six of those targets came on out patterns, and three each on crossing and go routes.
Can he do damage on some of the routes that were staples of Graham’s repertoire? Will he be asked to do those things? That all remains up for debate. But right now, the Saints are betting on him being able to fill that void.
Hill thinks he can do the job. He’ll feed off that chip. But he isn’t worried about it. Right now, all he wants to do is work on his craft and pay better attention to the little things.
“There’s a lot of different things I can get better at,” Hill said. “It’s just about the details and understanding what they want me to do, different things they want me to do in the future.”