The New Orleans Saints will have a makeover at the tight end position in 2021. Veteran starters Jared Cook and Josh Hill are both gone.
Cook was among the team's leading receivers over the last two seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 2019. Hill had been a reliable blocker and underrated part of the running game since 2013.
With the offseason retirement of QB Drew Brees, the team will also have a new quarterback to open a season for the first time since 2005.
Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill will battle for the starting job. It will be crucial for the team to surround their new signal-caller with reliable weapons to succeed.
Running back Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas are the focal points of the offensive attack. However, the Saints have several unproven players at wide receiver and tight end.
Coach Sean Payton's offensive system uses their tight ends in various ways, often deploying more than one, even on obvious passing situations. Will the new players at the position be effective for the team's offense this season?
The Saints are just one week away from the start of training camp. Today, we preview a position that got little discussion over the offseason, but one that could be crucial to success.
SAINTS TIGHT END DEPTH CHART
- Adam Trautman
- Nick Vannett
- Ethan Wolf
- Dylan Soehner (R)
- Garrett Griffin
- Juwan Johnson (WR/TE)
New Orleans traded four draft picks to Minnesota in the 2020 NFL Draft to move into place to select Trautman with a third-round choice.
He earned more playing time as the season progressed because he impressed coaches as a blocker, appearing in 15 games and 37% of the offensive snaps.
Used sparingly as a receiver as a rookie, Trautman caught 15 of his 16 targets for 171 yards and a touchdown.
At 6’5” and 255-Lbs., Trautman can be a mismatch against smaller defensive backs and has the athleticism to beat most linebackers.
Trautman has the speed and route precision to be a viable downfield threat. He has terrific hands and positions his body well in traffic to give his quarterback a reliable target.
To offset the free-agent departure of Hill, who has since retired, the Saints signed the 28-year-old Vannett. Used mostly as a blocker over his five-year career with Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Denver, Vannett has 33 career starts.
He is normally used as a second tight end, the 6’6 and 261-Lb. Vannett has 75 career receptions for 686 yards and five scores. He isn't much of a threat down the field but is a capable receiver through the short and intermediate zones.
Trautman and Vannett figure to get most of the tight end snaps. Trautman has been identified as a potential breakout candidate for the offense. Vannett provides valuable starting experience, should Trautman be slow to develop.
THE NEXT JOSH HILL?
What made Josh Hill so valuable to the New Orleans offense wasn't his receiving ability - he was rarely used in that capacity.
Hill was perhaps the NFL's best blocker at the position. An extension of the offensive line for the running game, he was also a terrific pass blocker who could slip out into the flat as a check-down option.
Rookie TE Dylan Soehner from Iowa State wasn't drafted, but was quickly signed by the Saints after the event. Soehner is a 6’6” and 270-Lb. behemoth that some have projected could convert to the offensive line.
Soehner wasn't used much as a receiver in college, catching 25 passes for 312 yards and a score in two years. He won't threaten a defense down the field but has soft hands in traffic and is a punishing runner after the catch.
If Soehner makes this team, it will be because of his blocking ability. He needs to improve his strength at the point of attack but has the size and technique to engulf opposing linebackers and defensive ends.
WATCH OUT FOR:
Second-year UDFA wideout Juwan Johnson made the squad as a rookie. He appeared in seven games and caught just 4 passes for 39 yards, but impressed coaches with his physicality and blocking skills.
At 6’4” and 231-Lbs., Johnson fits the prototype of a big receiver Sean Payton prefers at the position, but adds little as a downfield threat.
Johnson took snaps at tight end during the team's OTA's, and would add a receiving threat and versatility to the unit if he converts positions.
Garrett Griffin has become the Saints' longest-tenured player at tight end. The former Air Force Academy product has been with the team since 2016, almost exclusively on the practice squad.
Griffin has just 3 receptions for 16 yards and a score, appearing in nine career contests. He has shown little as a receiver and is an undersized blocker, but knows the system and contributes to special teams.
Second-year TE Ethan Wolf should also be a factor in the battle for a backup spot. Wolf has excellent size at 6’6” and 252-Lbs. He has soft hands and good athleticism as a receiver, but must get stronger as a run blocker.
Unlike previous seasons, the Saints don't have any marquee names at the tight end position. However, the team has the intriguing potential at the spot to provide their new quarterback with receiving targets and be effective in-line blockers for their rushing attack.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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