Ben Watson hasn’t been moving much like a 12-year veteran this summer.
Watson has instead been a favored target in the workouts open to the media, working both over the middle and over the top of the secondary for big catches — albeit in the padless sessions that make up organized team activities.
Now 34, Watson, who has kept himself in impressive shape, believes he still has the speed to stretch the field.
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be playing,” he said.
Watson has worked hard to maintain his downfield skills even though he hasn’t been asked to stretch the field much in his first two seasons in New Orleans.
Fully cognizant of the fact that plenty of NFL veterans start to decline at age 30, Watson has responded by taking meticulous care of his body. Watson, who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, is still built like a somewhat oversized sprinter: all muscle and little fat.
“Benjamin is in really good shape; he takes care of himself,” coach Sean Payton said. “For some players, maybe, that drop-off can happen quicker, but I wouldn’t say we’ve seen that with him, and that’s a credit to how he trains, prepares and lives.”
Whether Watson will get to test teams downfield regularly once September arrives remains to be seen. For the most part, he has been a possession receiver and a blocker in his Saints career; he averaged a career-low 6.8 yards on 20 catches last season. When Jimmy Graham is on the roster, the opportunities for the rest of the tight ends to stretch the field are few and far between.
But Graham is gone now, shipped off to Seattle in arguably the biggest blockbuster of the NFL offseason.
The trade left a lot of tight end production to replace. Up-and-coming target Josh Hill is expected to take over a lot of Graham’s role, but Watson’s performance in the organized team activities have prompted questions about whether Watson can fill some of that void.
In his final season in Cleveland, Watson caught 49 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns, and a player who has pulled in 32 touchdowns in 11 seasons has plenty of experience as a red-zone threat.
“I’ll speak for myself, but also as a group: Our goal is not to replace Jimmy Graham,” Watson said. “Jimmy Graham is a guy who is very gifted, who can do things that most people cannot do in the NFL — period. Not just on this team. And so our goal is not to replace Jimmy. That shouldn’t be our goal; it should never be our goal. Our goal is to win football games.”
Watson is also the only proven blocker at the position. When the Saints go to two tight ends, Watson’s an obvious choice as the second tight end. In those situations, Watson’s blocking offers options to Payton as a play-caller.
“He will be involved a bunch — no different than he was last year,” Payton said. “I don’t know, with Jimmy’s departure, that changes Ben’s role, because he was very involved a year ago. Certainly Josh Hill will receive more snaps because of that. Ben is one of those guys that can play the true ‘Y’ and also be a guy that can be a threat in the passing game.”
But Watson could be featured more in the passing game even without drastically changing his role.
Now that both Graham and receiver Kenny Stills are gone, there might be more opportunities for a player like Watson to throw back to his days in Cleveland and New England, when he was often a downfield threat.
Even Watson, who has stressed that the Saints are getting back to the basics, can admit that the chances of getting more involved in the passing game are better after the Saints’ roster overhaul.
“I think that I have an opportunity to do some things, hopefully,” he said.
The Saints hope so, too. The opportunity is there.
“Absolutely,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He’s a guy who can do it all.”