Sean Payton tipped his hand before the season even started.
He knew that his offense was going to look different. He knew what he was about to unleash on the league, and it wasn’t going to be like anything the Saints had shown the previous few seasons.
"I think the changes take place with the addition or subtraction of the different tight ends or the different halfbacks," Payton said. "In other words, there’s some staples receiver-wise, but we went from Ernie Conwell, Billy Miller in those early years, then (Jeremy) Shockey and Jimmy Graham, (Coby) Fleener.”
Payton got his evolution with the addition of rookie running back Alvin Kamara. He didn’t get the same result from his tight ends. In fact, it was the opposite. It didn’t help that Fleener’s season ended after 11 games due to a concussion, but the production wasn’t there even before he was lost for the year, as he made 22 receptions for 295 yards.
The rest of the group wasn’t much better – at least in the receiving game – as the collective only accumulated 472 yards on 44 receptions. It was the lowest yardage total New Orleans received from the position since 2006, when Mark Campbell, Billy Miller and a handful of other players combined for 411 yards. The next lowest figure was 711 yards, set in 2007.
In most seasons, the tight end has been a staple of the New Orleans offense. In 2008, Billy Miller and Jeremy Shockey combined for 1,062 yards. Then, a few years later, Jimmy Graham was unleashed on the world, and Ben Watson did a respectable job in 2015, racking up 825 yards.
The evaporation of the tight end wasn’t for lack of opportunities. Drew Brees attempted 108 passes with two or more tight ends on the field. Only 23 of those targets went to tight ends.
If the Saints are going to continue to be a team that relies on the running game and uses heavy sets, it will need to find a way to get tight ends who demand a bigger piece of the pie.
Using this type of offense means there is an opportunity to create more mismatches waiting to be seized. New Orleans just needs to find the right players to take advantage.
New Orleans likes to categorize its offseason priorities in lists of wants, needs and musts.
Tight end isn’t a must. It might exist somewhere between a want and a need. The organization could move forward with the players it has and be fine, but it would be a whole lot better if someone is added to the position.
The Saints have their top trio of players — Fleener, Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui — under contract for next season. Both Hill and Hoomanawanui are capable blockers who provide value in the running and screen games. And Hill continues to show flashes in the passing game, particularly during the playoffs when he made several key plays.
It only took three quarters for Drew Brees to silence his critics.
Hill is set to count as $2.8 million against the cap. He is in the final year of his contract and has $833,334 remaining in guarantees against the cap. Hoomanawanui, who is also in the final year of his contract, will count $1.9 million against the cap. He has $333,334 remaining in guarantees on his contract.
The Saints must figure out if Fleener is going to be part of the future.
And the decision must come quickly since $3.4 million of his $6.3 million base salary for 2018 becomes guaranteed if he is still on the roster on Wednesday.
Fleener is currently set to count as an $8 million hit against the salary cap. New Orleans can save $3.2 million by releasing him now.
The tight end has some value to the offense, and has done well operating out of three-receiver sets, but has not lived up to the five-year, $36 million contract he signed before the 2016 season. It does not help that he has minimal value as a blocker in an offense that has become so run oriented. It would not be a surprise if the organization decides he is no longer worth the investment.
The unknown variable is if he has been medically cleared following the concussion that ended his season. If he has not, releasing him could become a complicated process.
Where have you been?
The Saints used to love throwing seam routes to Graham.
The play hasn’t been much of a factor as of late. According to Sports Info Solutions, Brees was 4-for-9 when targeting players on the route this season. The numbers are not available before the 2015 season, but the guess here is that number was higher before Graham was traded to the Seahawks.
As a whole, there aren't a lot of teams overdosing on seam routes to tight ends. New England led the way with 17 attempts, while the Seahawks (11), Bengals (11) and Buccaneers (11) round out the top of the list. The Seahawks and Bucs led the league in 2016 (15 attempts each). Brees targeted the route 13 times.
When comparing the 2016 season to 2017, the seam route took a little dip for the Saints, but the change in percentage is minimal since New Orleans attempted fewer passes last season.
Whether it is the draft or free agency, New Orleans should have its eye on upgrading this position. Paired with a versatile player like Kamara, the right tight end could make it extremely difficult to defend this offense.