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Saints' Benjamin Watson does his best Jimmy Graham impression

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Maybe Jimmy Graham was just holding Benjamin Watson back for the past two years.

Watson emerged as a red zone monster for the New Orleans Saints during Thursday’s practice, catching touchdown passes from three different quarterbacks in a series of team drills from inside the 20-yard line.

The highlight was a terrific leaping grab from backup QB Luke McCown in traffic near the side of the end zone. But he also caught TD passes from starter Drew Brees and rookie Garrett Grayson (one of Grayson’s best throws of camp).

No, I don’t seriously expect Watson to slide right into the same role that Graham played as New Orleans’ top offensive weapon over the past four years.

However, as Watson himself said, “Somebody has to go out and make some plays.” And it’s not like catching passes is new to the 34-year-old, who has 4,138 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns in an 11-year career spent with the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Saints.

“Jimmy is a 1-in-50 type of player,” Watson said. “There’s really only one of him, and he’s in Seattle now. That being said, there are many ways to win football games and many ways to have a very productive offense.

“I think that I’m in a position to get the ball a little more, obviously, without Jimmy here. And with that, getting the reps and being with Drew (Brees), there’s obviously a relationship that gets built there just because of practice.”

The trust factor with Brees is evident. He has consistently been targeting Watson this summer, dating back to OTAs and minicamp.

In fact, Watson has been much more heavily involved than young tight end Josh Hill, though that could change as the third-year pro continues to develop in a bigger role himself.

I don’t know if Watson will be fantasy-relevant, but he’ll be a bigger part of the Saints’ equation as they spread the ball around to a wider variety of options.

“He’s steady, and he’s been that way since the day we got him,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Watson, who has been more heavily used as a blocker in New Orleans, something that will keep him on the field for a large percentage of snaps. “He’s in good shape, very consistent. You know exactly what you’re getting, and that’s encouraging.”

I expect much more than the total of 39 catches, 362 yards and four TDs Watson has over the past two years combined in New Orleans. Maybe something closer to Watson’s last year in Cleveland in 2012, when he caught 49 passes for 501 yards and three scores.

Watson was asked if people forget that he was part of the original wave of pass-catching tight ends a decade ago before Graham and Rob Gronkowski took it to the next level.

"That's long, long forgotten, man. It's ancient history,” Watson said. “The kids say, 'Hey, I used to play with you on Madden when I was in middle school.' I'm like, 'Thanks, thanks, guys.'

“But, yeah, I have played for a while and I've been fortunate to be able to be in this game for longer than I expected to be in the game, honestly.”

Among other highlights from Thursday’s practice:

  • The Saints’ defense started strong in Thursday’s pass-heavy practice but fizzled late. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste blanketed receiver Marques Colston in the end zone, forcing Brees to check down. And linebacker Stephone Anthony and cornerback Brandon Browner rejected two of Brees’ passes in what appeared to be a simulated two-minute drill, forcing the starting offense to go four-and-out. But then touchdowns started to come in bunches during red-zone drills as the offense started to pick the defense apart.

  • Second-year receiver Seantavius Jones caught two of those TDs, taking advantage of fellow second-year receiver Brandon Coleman’s injury absence. Jones has been quieter so far in camp than Coleman, but Thursday was a reminder that he’s still in the mix.

  • Another second-year receiver we haven’t talked about much, Willie Snead, quietly has had a very good camp. He made a big-time catch from Brees on a third-down play in those red zone drills, and Payton praised him after practice for “knowing what to do on every play.” The 5-11, 195-pounder is buried in a very crowded receiver group but can’t be ruled out if he keeps making plays.