When Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks last season, all the talk was about how Josh Hill would fill the new crater in the New Orleans Saints offense.
It’s unlikely Ben Watson was ever mentioned as the possible solution. He was going to turn 35, had never caught more than 68 passes and topped 500 receiving yards only once in the previous four seasons.
But when training camp opened, it was the veteran who stepped up and shined, play after play. It reached a point where it became hard to believe that what he was doing in practice would carry into the season, but Watson never slowed, finishing with 74 receptions for 825 yards. Both of those marks were career bests.
Now, New Orleans is going to have to face life without its top tight end for the second season in a row: The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that Watson agreed to sign with the Ravens when free agency opens Wednesday. If the deal is consummated, the Saints once again will have a major need at tight end.
It’s hard to inspire confidence with the tight ends on the roster. New Orleans only has Michael Hoomanawanui (who agreed to terms on a three-year deal Tuesday), Jack Tabb, Chris Manhertz and RaShaun Allen under contract. Hill is a restricted free agent but will be free to sign with another team if he is not tendered an offer before the start of free agency.
Tabb spent his first season in the NFL on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Manhertz, who played basketball in college, has only one year under his belt as a football player. Allen has never caught a pass in the NFL. Hoomanawanui, more of a blocker than a receiver, caught 11 passes for 76 yards and three touchdowns last season. He has never had more than 146 receiving yards in a season.
This is a major loss for the Saints because it means they now need to go out and find a tight end or wide receiver who can work the seams and operate over the middle of the field. New Orleans does not have a player capable of doing those things on the roster.
The ideal move would be to bring in another tight end with receiving ability, because it would allow the Saints to have a certain level of deception out of two-tight end sets. But some of Watson’s responsibilities in the passing game could be covered by a big-bodied receiver if a suitable option is not located at tight end.
Furthermore, if the team does not restock at tight end, it could take the three-tight end sets the team liked to use last season out of the rotation. This would be a minor adjustment for the offense, but the package often set up deep shots down the field by forcing the defense to leave the lone receiver on the field in single coverage.
Whether or not Hill is retained, trying to find a tight end — via free agency or the draft — who can do those things has to be one of the priorities of the offseason.
That’s not the position this team wanted to find itself in, with pressing needs to tend to across the defense and at guard. New Orleans also needs to figure out a way to lower quarterback Drew Brees’ salary-cap number, which is $30 million for 2016, to free up more money to help plug those holes.
And beyond the production on the field, the Saints have lost major leadership in the locker room with wide receiver Marques Colston being released earlier this offseason.
This team remains in transition.
So now, with free agency set to open, New Orleans has plenty of work to do to ensure the offense remains one of the top units in the league. That’s a turnaround from a week ago, when it looked like this team only needed to spread a little spackle on the offense to keep things solid.
If he sticks around, maybe the answer at tight end is Hill. Maybe his time is coming — just a year later than projected. Whoever it may be, the answer isn’t currently clear.
The Saints found an answer last year when there appeared to be no obvious solution. Now that needs to happen again.