METAIRIE, La. – Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson was arguably the New Orleans Saints’ player of the day during Thursday’s OTA practice – catching both short and long passes alike. Watson caught one deep pass over the middle that likely would have gone for a touchdown even if the Saints were live tackling. He broke open past outside linebacker Anthony Spencer before safety help arrived.
Of course, Watson won’t become the next Jimmy Graham in New Orleans’ offense. But at the same time, don’t sleep on the idea that the 34-year-old could play an expanded role as a pass-catcher after Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
As I wrote in my recent fantasy breakdown, I don’t think this is a case where young backup tight end Josh Hill will simply leapfrog Watson in the pecking order. Watson will likely even play more snaps than Hill because of his blocking ability.
“He’s a stud. He’s such a stud,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Watson after Thursday’s practice. “Certainly one of the most respected guys on this team, not just what he brings to us on the field, but what he brings to us in the locker room. As a husband, father, man of faith, just a guy who’s got really strong values and principles and a really great example for all of us.
“He’s a perfect guy to be stepping into that role, and he deserves that.”
When asked if that means he expects a greater pass-catching role for Watson, Brees said, “Absolutely,” though Brees quickly also praised both Hill and tight end Orson Charles as versatile players who have shown a good approach and work ethic so far.
Coach Sean Payton stressed that Watson’s role won’t change significantly in the wake of Graham’s departure, since Watson was already playing a sizable role (mostly as a blocker).
Payton did, however, say that one of the traits that stood out with Watson when the Saints first signed him in 2013 was his history as a decent receiving target in previous stops with the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns.
Watson (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) has just 39 catches for 362 yards and four touchdowns in his two years in New Orleans. But he has 4,138 yards and 32 touchdowns in his 11-year career, including high marks of 763 yards with the Browns in 2010 and 643 yards with the Patriots in 2006.
“When we studied him in Cleveland, he was used in both in blocking and a receiving role. I see that being the case for us,” Payton said. “He has pretty good versatility, really good versatility. He’s an experienced player. He understands certainly the run game and the passing game. He will be involved a bunch, no different than he was last year.
“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.”