Jimmy Graham's successor?
Shipping away the most talented player on the offense next to Drew Brees irritated the team's quarterback and left fans wondering if the franchise was ready to shred the roster into pieces.
As free agency and the draft played out, though, it became clear that coach Sean Payton was turning his attack into a ground-heavy, clock-chewing outfit that would better fit -- and better protect -- Brees. The Saints re-signed hard-running Mark Ingram and added C.J. Spiller to a backfield that could finish top five in carries in 2015.
Still, that doesn't mean the Saints are done throwing to the tight end, as made clear by Payton's consistent offseason praise for young target Josh Hill. Entering his third season, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder "certainly" will see "more snaps" because of Graham's departure, per Payton, who clarified that Hill is set up to play off the line as the team's "F" target.
The Saints bypassed drafting competition at the position because Payton assured scouts that Hill's measurables were superior to anything coming out of the college ranks, saying: "You look at a 38-inch vertical jump, he's an 11 broad (jump), three-cone, whatever. And the comparables to the top tight ends in the draft a year ago, I said, 'In every category this guy's better.'"
Game Rewind suggests that Hill is a strong fit for how Payton uses his pass-catching tight ends, with the coach calling him "exactly what we're looking for." He's an impressive athlete, something we saw right away last preseason, as Hill wound his way through a laundry list of Rams defenders for after-the-catch real estate:
His five touchdowns were arguably the product of Hill being deprioritized by opponents, but he proved to be a load to bring down. His 4.66 speed translates to the field and Hill isn't afraid to use his body to smash through cover men.
Hill caught just 14 passes for 176 yards last autumn, but took first-team reps throughout the offseason. Safety Kenny Vaccaro was impressed enough with his springtime work to say of Hill: "He's really athletic. He's getting better and better. We go at it every day, just like me and Jimmy did."
When we've swung and missed on "Leap" candidates, we're often a year too early.
That could be the case here, with beat reporter Mike Triplett of ESPN.com suggesting that Benjamin Watson"might have led the Saints in catches" during the offseason practices open to the media. There's also a belief that New Orleans might lean more heavily on three- and four-wideout sets over using Hill as they did Graham.
Payton also poured a little cold water on the Hill hype train by suggesting that his playing time could depend on "how much two tight end sets we're in, how much sub (packages)," another reminder that Hill's workload is no guarantee. Beyond that, Spiller is a candidate to steal catches away as a weapon out of the backfield.
We go back to Payton's end-of-the-year press conference in which he said of Hill: "Each week you know exactly what you're gonna get. He's talented, he can run, he's young. He's consistent. Those are things that allow you to win."
Hill is being groomed for an increased role in an offense with a long history of turning its tight ends into on-field whirlwinds. Graham made that easy, doing things that nobody outside of Rob Gronkowski could dream of.
There's no way Hill comes close to filling those shoes -- and he won't get the same open looks come September -- but his build, speed and freaky measurements suggest a jump in production. Tight ends often come into their own during second and third seasons, leaving me to believe that Hill could equal what we saw from Zach Ertz in Philadelphia last year, with a line somewhere in the neighborhood of 58 catches for 702 yards with five-plus scores.
That certainly would help soften the loss of Graham.