If Josh Hill can feel the increased glare of the spotlight turned on him this offseason, the lanky tight end hasn’t offered any hints.
A typically understated player in interview sessions, Hill has mostly been quiet this summer, comfortable in the Saints offense and confident in the decision-makers in charge of designing his role.
No matter how much the roster might have changed this offseason, Hill is preparing for his third season with the same approach that marked his first two.
“I don’t see it different than any other year,” Hill said. “I’m just trying to do what they ask me to do, understand my role on the team and just do whatever I can do.”
The difference is the Saints will likely ask Hill to play a much larger role in the offense.
Trading Jimmy Graham opened up an opportunity at tight end.
And even if Hill isn’t asked to replace Graham’s numbers by himself — veterans like Drew Brees and Ben Watson repeatedly said the Saints don’t have to replace Graham by developing a clone of the former Pro Bowler — there’s still an opening for playing time at the position.
Double tight end sets have been a staple of Sean Payton’s offenses during his time in New Orleans; the Saints almost always deploy both a downfield receiving threat and an all-around player capable of blocking at the position. Now that Graham is off in Seattle, there’s an opening for a field-stretching pass catcher opposite Watson.
It’s a spot Hill has been groomed to fill for two years. Despite showing interest in a few veteran tight ends like former Bengal Jermaine Gresham and waived Patriot Tim Wright, New Orleans is currently set to head into training camp with just four tight ends on the roster, a sign the Saints are ready for Hill to assume a much larger role.
“I couldn’t say specifically that he is going to have 25 percent more playing time, but certainly, his playing time will increase,” Payton said. “We think he is a guy that can run and stretch the defense.”
Hill made the most of limited opportunities in 2014.
A former undrafted free agent whose athleticism earned him a roster spot in 2013, Hill blossomed into a red-zone threat in 2014, sprinkling five touchdown catches into his 14 receptions for 176 yards. Hill might not have been a featured target, but he flashed impressive speed and an ability to run after the catch, taking short throws to the flat and outrunning linebackers to the pylon on two of his scores last season.
Now he has a chance to take on a featured role in an offense tailored somewhat to fit his strengths. Hill has spent most of his time in New Orleans operating as an in-line receiver with his hand on the ground in two-tight end sets, but with Graham gone, Hill should get chances to line up as a receiver in the slot and outside.
“I think it’ll be interesting to see how defenses play us this year,” backup quarterback Ryan Griffin said. “When we had Jimmy, we saw a lot of nickel, so with Josh and Ben, it’ll be interesting to see if we’re getting nickel or if we’re getting base. And if we’re getting a lot of base, you get a lot of opportunity.”
New Orleans will find a way to highlight Hill’s talents. Brees has already said the Saints offense is changing to fit the new talent stepping into bigger roles.
For the moment, though, Hill is keeping any potential tweaks to the tight end position to himself.
“They ask us to do a lot of things,” Hill said. “They always have. I haven’t seen anything stand out to being really different, just subtle changes here and there.”
Graham has rubbed off a little on his replacement. Hill spent two years behind the Pro Bowler, picking up tips and marveling at Graham’s competitiveness. There will be plenty of temptation to compare Hill to Graham, a comparison that has already begun this season and figures to intensify when the Saints open training camp in West Virginia at the end of the month.
But Hill’s teammates say the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder is his own man, and he should have plenty of chances to introduce himself to the rest of the league this fall.
“He’s a combination of a lot of guys, but he’s got his own flavor,” Watson said. “Guys who are smart, guys who are physical, guys who are coachable, guys who are versatile, they can play a very long time.”