Jimmy Graham helped revolutionize the tight end position in the NFL during his five years with the New Orleans Saints. But now that he's gone, I think we'll see that position return to more of a complementary one in the Saints' offense.
Third-year pro Josh Hill will play a much bigger role after catching 14 passes for 176 yards and five touchdowns last year. But it won't be the "Jimmy Graham role," which didn't really exist before Graham emerged in New Orleans.
I hate to dump cold water on the fantasy buzz surrounding Hill -- and maybe I'll be wrong, since coach Sean Payton has raved about the athletic 6-foot-5, 250-pounder as a player he "loves." But part of that is because Hill has brought so much value in a versatile role as a pass-catcher/blocker/core special teams player since being undrafted out of Idaho State in 2013.
As I've written before, the best statistical season by a Saints tight end other than Graham in Payton's offense was Jeremy Shockey's 2009 season (48 catches, 569 yards, three touchdowns). That's a realistic target for Hill, with maybe a few more TDs thrown in. I'll be curious to see how much of a red zone target Hill is -- and if defenses pay more attention to him than they did last year, when most of his TDs came as the result of being the open man.
The Saints will likely lean on veteran Benjamin Watson even more in the passing game as well. And I expect Watson to play even more snaps than Hill since he's such a valued blocker in the run game.
Here's a breakdown of the rest of the Saints' tight ends and fullbacks as I continue my position-by-position look at New Orleans' roster battles heading into the start of training camp. Most players arrived at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on Tuesday, with the official reporting date Wednesday and the first practice Thursday.
Position: Tight ends/fullbacks
Analysis: I often lump these two positions together because they can be somewhat interchangeable at times. In the past, Hill has spent some time lining up as a fullback. But now I'm curious if it's possible the Saints could use one of their fullbacks as a tight end on occasion.
The starting fullback battle is as close as it gets. Johnson, a former undrafted linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens, stepped up big-time last year and earned a starting job when the veteran Lorig suffered a leg injury in training camp. Then Lorig reclaimed the job when Johnson suffered his own knee injury later in the season. Now they're both healthy – and possibly battling for just one spot on the 53-man roster since the Saints only use fullbacks part-time.
Charles and Brock are both primarily blocking specialists who have some NFL experience. Tabb is an undrafted rookie with a chance to crack the roster if he outshines those guys in camp.