With the 2016 NFL Off-Season getting underway, we’ve already seen some major moves from the New Orleans Saints, like the “unofficial” release off penalty-magnet Brandon Browner as well as long time veteran and Saints Super Bowl Era guard Jahri Evans.
Moves like these were expected from New Orleans as Sean Payton again tries to “clean house” like he did last year, and honestly the Saints need all the room and help that they can get with salary cap issues, leading the league in dead money, and more tough roster decisions looming large in the distance.
With the Saints having 20+ free agents going into the 2016 season, the final decision on whether to re-sign or allow a player to walk lays squarely with Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.
As it turns out however, perhaps one of those decisions that has been made easier for them is the question of re-signing 35-year old tight end Benjamin Watson after he had his best statistical season of his 12-year career.
Oct 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) makes a two-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
When the Saints traded star tight end Jimmy Graham for Seattle’s star center, Max Unger, every Saints fan thought Sean Payton was insane for making what at the time seemed to be one of the most bizarre trades in recent NFL history.
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Immediately there were questions of whom would step up at tight end, especially since no tight or a wide receiver to replace the traded Kenny Stills, were taken by the Saints in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The assumption by most observers was that 3rd year back-up TE Josh Hill would adequately take over the role, given the potential that he had flashed in glimpses during the 2014 season when Graham was hurt.
However as we saw, Hill quite simply was NOT up to the task.
Then Watson shocked not only the Saints but the entire NFL world, with a “break-out” performance that honestly no one saw coming at all. To top it off, Watson statistically even outperformed Graham — who struggled early with the Seahawks before a knee injury ended his season prematurely in Week 12 against Pittsburgh.
Here are the impressive numbers that Watson put up that will now have the Saints thinking long and hard whether or not to extend an offer to him for at least the 2016 season:
- 825 yards receiving
- 74 receptions
- 6 Touchdowns
- Averaging 51.6 yards per game
All of those statistical categories were the most he had in a single season in his entire career, while conversely Graham finished with 605 receiving yards with 2 touchdowns prior to the season-ending knee injury.
In his career, Watson has played with two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Tom Brady and Drew Brees; but it was with Brees that he has shown a “connection” with — and presumably Saints brass may at least for the short term want to keep that connection intact, at least long enough (a 1 or a 2-year deal) until a suitable replacement can be found via Free Agency or the NFL Draft in late April.
While 35 is considered “old” for most positions in the NFL, Watson has found a way to play like he’s 25 again; and finding this unexpected “fountain of youth” is going to be something that perhaps the Saints don’t want to give up on so easily during Free Agency.
Jan 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) catches a touchdown pass behind Atlanta Falcons free safety Charles Godfrey (30) during the second quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
When Watson originally entered the 2004 NFL Draft, he was one of the top “receiving” tight ends in his draft class out of Georgia, as well as the most intelligent — achieving a tie for third highest score in NFL history for his wunderlic test at the Scouting Combine that year.
Ultimately, he was the 32nd overall pick to the defending World Champion New England Patriots that year, although he battled injuries through his rookie season, only playing in only one regular season game.
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Throughout his 5 years in Foxboro, he became known for some big plays; like the last-minute tackle on Broncos CB Champ Bailey on the 2-yard line to save a “pick-six” thrown by Tom Brady in the 2006 Playoffs, where he ran nearly the entire length of the field (about 80 yards) to make the TD-saving tackle.
He stayed in New England long enough to get a Super Bowl ring during that lost rookie season; before moving on to Cleveland, where he was tied as the leading receiver for the Browns in the 2010 season.
His time in New Orleans had been spent mostly as being a perfect back up tight end to Graham and a veteran guy to give guidance to younger players. But now that he has shown there is still a lot of gas left in the tank, there is little to no reason why the Saints shouldn’t give some serious consideration to keeping him in NOLA to finish what he and Brees have started.
After the break out year he has had at age 35, giving him additional time to see if he can actually keep the momentum going or even possibly top it, isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
A decision to keep Watson could prove beneficial to the Saints; and while there are some big name tight ends on the market this year like Martellus Bennett or Ladarius Green (who actually would be the perfect fit), it may be easier for the offense to stick with a guy Brees is already comfortable with.
Oct 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) hugs tight end Benjamin Watson (82) following a win against the Atlanta Falcons in a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Watson has shown the reliability that Brees seeks in a “go to” tight end in any situation, which we saw clearly in his biggest game of the year when he put up 147 yards and a touchdown during the crazy air battle between the Giants and Saints in Week #8 at the Superdome.
While perhaps no one will mention Watson in the same breath as a Greg Olsen, Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Antonio Gates or even a Jimmy Graham, Watson has shown with 2015’s performance that he at least belongs in the conversation.
And that — if nothing else — has earned him one final run, in the Black and Gold…..