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How Do the Saints Fix Their Issues at the Tight End Position? Here’s a Few Options

As the New Orleans Saints head into their 2018 NFL off-season and look for ways to further improve their team and remain a Super Bowl contender for the next several seasons, there is one position on the current roster that SCREAMS OUT to be addressed: the tight end position.

It goes without saying that the "Coby Fleener Experiment" in New Orleans hasn't turned out quite the way that the team originally thought that it would, as the Saints' prized signee of their 2016 Free Agent class has battled inconsistency and a string of nagging injuries that has negatively impacted his contributions in the past 2 seasons  that he's been with the franchise.

In his 2 seasons in New Orleans, Fleener has played in 27 games out of 34 (including the 2 recent Playoff games) with only 8 starts, has been targeted 111 times, and has caught 72 passes for 926 yards and 5 TD's.

While those numbers aren't horrible per say, they don't exactly meet up with the production that the Saints front office was hoping to get when they signed Fleener to a 5-year, $36 million deal.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Whether or not the Saints will keep Fleener around for the remainder of his contract is an unanswered question at the moment, though it seems somewhat likely that the team might be ready to move on and find a new player to man the starting tight end position going forward.

As first reported by ESPN's Saints beat writer Mike Triplett: Fleener is owed $6.4 million in salary and bonuses this year, $3.4 million of which is guaranteed for injury only and is scheduled to become fully guaranteed in March. It seems highly unlikely that he will stay with the Saints unless they work out deal for him to take a pay cut, since his role in the offense has been smaller than expected. Triplett notes that the Saints would still be charged $4.8 million in dead money over the next year or two if they release Fleener.

It was hoped that the signing of Fleener would give the Saints a viable "replacement" for former starting tight end Jimmy Graham, who was traded to the Seattle Seahawks almost 3 years ago back on the first day of 2015 NFL Free Agency, the year before the Saints signed Fleener.

Graham of course redefined the tight end position in the NFL, and was more like a receiver in the Saints offense than the otherwise "traditional" role of a typical NFL tight end.

Unfortunately, there were some issues regarding money and personality conflicts between Graham and Saints management, that necessitated his departure and eventual trade to the Seahawks.

And it's those same issues that remain between Graham and Saints management, that make his return back to New Orleans in Free Agency this year an unlikely scenario as well.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Still, the Saints have options at the TE position heading into the off-season; which includes the distinct possibility that New Orleans will draft and groom a young one out of college to take over the role in the not-too-distant future.

This morning, we're giving Saints fans our list of player options via both the upcoming 2018 NFL Free Agency signing period and the 2018 NFL Draft, for New Orleans to go after so that they can revitalize the TE role in their top-rated offensive attack.......

 

BEST AVAILABLE TIGHT ENDS IN 2018 NFL FREE AGENCY

 

JIMMY GRAHAM, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

According to Spotrac, Graham has a market value equal to a three-year deal worth about $21 million, averaging $7 million per year. This would be a decrease in pay from Graham’s previous deal – a four-year contract worth $10 million a year, the highest among tight ends (which he signed with the Saints before getting traded to the Seahawks).

But Graham was 28 when he signed that deal with New Orleans in 2014 and he’ll turn 32 years old in November of 2018. Which makes it even MORE unlikely that the Saints would pursue a tight end who likely will be potentially playing in his final contract of his career. The Saints need to get younger at the TE position, not older.

And while Graham still put up solid numbers last year (57 catches for 520 yards and 10 TD's), he's been playing with a series of nagging injuries since leaving NOLA which included a torn patella tendon in his right knee that shortened his first season with the Seahawks in 2015.

At this point, it's unlikely the Saints are going to give a 32-year old Graham more money to play for them in 2018, than the actual lesser amount of money that they don't seem willing to give to the 29-year old Fleener. Stranger things have happened of course, but at this point a reunification between Graham and the Saints doesn't appear to be a viable option.

 

TYLER EIFERT, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The 27-year old Eifert has never played a full 16-game season for the Bengals in his five-year career with the team. The only reason anyone is going to give Eifert a big contract in Free Agency is simply because of what kind of player he is when he is healthy: which is one of the best young tight ends in the sport of Pro Football.

Eifert's biggest problem is that he can't seem to stay on the field long enough to make a lasting impact. In 2015, he had 13 touchdowns and was virtually unstoppable in the red zone. But since that time in the last 2 seasons combined, Eifert has only played in 10 games (out of a possible 32) with 2 starts.

Additionally, there's the chance that Eifert’s career might be in jeopardy due to recent back and knee injuries; meaning that he’ll likely be willing to sign a contract with minimal guarantees if he and an interested team can negotiate an incentive-based contract.

However, it just seems like too big of a risk for the Saints to take; and given how they just got "burned" essentially with the Fleener signing 2 years ago, it would be foolish of them to give Eifert a deal that he might not ever be capable of fulfilling.

 

TREY BURTON, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

A 26-year-old tight end who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Eagles back in 2014, Burton has gone from unknown to indispensable over his four years with the Eagles. He caught a career-high 37 passes last season in 2016 as the back-up to Eagles starting TE Zach Ertz, and he caught a career-high 5 TD's this season when Ertz was hurt.

Last Saturday, he also threw the key block to spring RB LeGarrette Blount for the Eagles’ only touchdown in their 15-10 victory over the Falcons, the decisive play in the win that elevated them into this coming Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against Minnesota.

The "bottom line" on Burton is that he’s 6-3 and has good speed, even if he’s only just caught 63 passes in three years for 6 touchdowns. But he can catch AND block, which certainly would make him an attractive free agent target for Saints head coach Sean Payton.

The question then becomes: how much would the Saints be willing to offer Burton, given that he's still basically an "unproven commodity" — despite the solid performances that he's had when given the opportunity.

 

BEST AVAILABLE TIGHT ENDS IN 2018 NFL DRAFT

 

DALLAS GOEDERT, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE

Photo courtesy of South Dakota State University Athletics

South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert looks to be the highest-rated tight end in this April's upcoming 2018 NFL Draft, at least right now as of mid-to-late January. He’s currently projected to be a bottom-of-the-first-round prospect at best, which is right where the Saints are picking this year (27th overall).

Goedert is a prospect that Saints fans will want to keep an eye on during the Senior Bowl next week and the NFL Scouting Combine in late February (February 27th-March 5th). Despite the fact that he played at a smaller school, Goedert was a versatile receiving threat at South Dakota State; although the biggest question that will follow him is can he make the "step up" at the level of competition in the professional ranks.

At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Goedert had a standout career for the Jackrabbits, with 193 receptions for 2,945 yards and 20 touchdowns. He caught a whopping 169 passes for 2,361 yards and 17 touchdowns during his last two seasons alone. Essentially, he's as big as an O-Lineman but with WR skills.

ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay says that Goedert is an underrated talent who has dominated his small-school competition, has the athletic ability to give linebackers issues, and his size is (and will be) trouble for CB's. But McShay cautions: the off-season process of these next few months will be big for him, to prove that he belongs in the NFL. 

 

MARK ANDREWS, OKLAHOMA

Photo courtesy of The Tulsa World

Andrews, a redshirt junior, was a consensus All-American and won the 2017 John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. He led the Sooners with 62 receptions for 958 yards and 8 touchdowns this season, and served as one of the top receiving targets for Oklahoma's top-rated QB prospect Baker Mayfield.

He also finished as Oklahoma's career leader for yards by a tight end with 1,765, and because of his size (he's listed at 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds), he has the potential to be a match-up nightmare for defenses at the next level.

NFL Draft analyst Matt Lombardo says that Andrews is the premier tight end in this year's class, and is a physically imposing target both in the red zone and over the middle of the field where he's shown a propensity to fight for contested passes. 

CBS Sports currently has Andrews going at the end of the first round (once again: the Saints are picking 27th), though it's more likely that he could last into the 2nd Round — where the Saints won't have a pick because they traded it away in last year's draft to move up and select RB Alvin Kamara.

 

MIKE GESICKI, PENN STATE

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

The 6-foot-6, 252 pound Gesicki is one of the top tight end prospects for the upcoming draft and is arguably the top senior tight end along with Dallas Goedert of South Dakota State. Gesicki has the size to be a future in-line blocker at the next level, but he has impressive movement and ball skills that should make him a solid "receiving" TE at the NFL level as well.

Gesicki will be yet another name for Saints fans to monitor at the Senior Bowl and at the Scouting Combine, as he looks to solidify his position as a Top-3 tight end in this year's 2018 TE class. Gesicki caught 57 out of 80 targets for 563 yards and 9 TD's as a senior for the Nittany Lions in 2017 and flashed next-level athleticism along the way. 

ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Steve Muench says that Gesicki is a big target who has great length and big hands. He doesn't drop a lot of passes and can create match-up problems. and an NFL team that takes him will be getting a guy that’s going to be someone you can use in that way.

Muench notes that you can isolate Gesicki against a corner or safety in the red zone, and it’s going to be tough for them to win that jump-ball situation. He’s an athlete who, because of his volleyball and basketball background, is used to going up and high-pointing balls. Muench gives Gesicki a Day 2 grade (2nd to 3rd Round), but also adds that it’ll be interesting to see how he does at the Senior Bowl as well as how he tests at the Scouting Combine.

 

HAYDEN HURST, SOUTH CAROLINA

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

In what basically amounts to a two-year career for the South Carolina football team, SEC Country writer Hale McGranahan says that Hayden Hurst’s career as a tight end for the Gamecocks was the most productive in the program's entire history.

The former professional baseball player joined the Gamecocks as a walk-on in 2015. Four games into the season, he was moved from tight end to wide receiver. Hurst, who pitched and played first base in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2013 and 2014, finished with 8 catches for 106 yards.

But McGranahan says that after now-current South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp arrived in December 2015, Hurst was moved back to tight end. Two years later, Hurst closed his career at South Carolina with 100 catches for 1,281 yards and 3 touchdowns. He finished first among all NCAA tight ends in receptions and second in yards receiving.

A little more than two weeks since his 3-catch, 41-yard performance against Michigan in the Outback Bowl, Hurst now will be chasing his dream of playing in the NFL. Hurst has been compared to Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, and it will be interesting to see if he can live up to that comparison, in the upcoming months and years that lie ahead.......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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