In case you missed it in all of the hoopla of the just-completed Saints 2018 Draft yesterday, the team signed 10 undrafted rookies to free agent contracts; all of whom will compete along with the team's other seven draft picks from this year's class, for a variety of spots later this Summer on the team's 53-man final roster prior to the upcoming 2018 NFL season.
Signed to rookie contracts were players Keith Kirkwood, WR, Temple; Taylor Stallworth, DT, South Carolina; Daronte Bouldin, OL, Ole Miss; Cory Helms, OL, South Carolina; Jeromy Irwin, OL, Colorado; Linden Stephens, cornerback, Cincinnati; Henry Mondeaux, DL, Oregon; AJ Hantak, Long Snapper, Eastern Illinois, and Colton Jumper, LB, Tennessee
But of those 10 names, one name CLEARLY stood out: Western Kentucky University tight end Deon Yelder.
It was very notable that the Saints didn't address the on-going concerns about the tight end position with any of their 7 draft picks of their 2018 Draft Class, which some interpreted as a sign that the team would keep veteran Coby Fleener around instead of releasing him on June 1st; and keep him as the back-up to recently re-signed veteran tight end Ben Watson.
Releasing Fleener after that date would give the team back approximately $3 million in cap space for the 2018 season, but would spread out the dead money charge out over the next three years. Meaning that Fleener would remain on the Saints’ financial books,until the designated June 1st date.
In the end, the Saints could just simply keep Fleener on the roster, while taking the risk that he can finally begin making a significant contribution in the receiving game after originally signing with the team in 2016 Free Agency.
However, the announce signing yesterday of Yelder via Tom Pelissero of NFL Network would seem to suggest that they aren't content with leaving things "status quo" at the TE spot.
Can Yelder be the player that can come in and alleviate the team's tight end concerns of the last few months?
A former walk-on, Yelder did not receive a scholarship or tally any receiving statistics prior to his senior campaign in 2017. But Yelder exploded onto the scene by leading WKU with 52 catches and 688 yards and 7 TD's, thanks in part to the fact that a new coaching staff led by first-time head coach Mike Sanford wanted to run an offense that features the tight end position.
Primarily used as a special teams player, the 6-foot-4, 255 pound Yelder made the most of the opportunities given to him as a redshirt senior. Yelder benefitted heavily from the tutelage of tight ends coach Ryan Mahaffey; and his yardage mark set a Hilltoppers single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end, and his versatility allowed him to finished ranked fourth in receptions and third in receiving yards among all tight ends across the nation.
NFL.com Draft analyst Chris Trapasso says that Yelder — who is a Louisville, Kentucky native — isn't a tight end you want running intricate routes, yet he showed a knack to get open in simple, high-percentage throws in the 7-10 yard range in college. Yelder has also shown the ability to be very coachable, and drew praise at the Senior Bowl for sharpening his blocking technique (considered his biggest weakness) immensely while showing off his unique blend of size, athleticism and hands.
Nicknamed "Thump" by family and close friends, Yelder capped off a strong week of practices in Mobile by catching a short touchdown pass in the game itself from University of Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta (who was drafted by the New York Giants). He was a last-minute addition to the week of Senior Bowl practices, after participating in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Despite the appearance at the Senior Bowl however, Yelder didn’t receive an invite to the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.
However at Western Kentucky’s Pro Day last month, Yelder ran in the 4.7-second range, with a 33.5″ vertical and 10-0 broad jump. According to Tony Pauline of Draft Analyst, Yelder looked like “a natural pass catcher with dependable hands.”
Yelder appears to be very similar to many of the mid-to-late round prospects every year, in that he needs a lot of "refinement" at the NFL level, but as Hilltoppers head coach Mike Sanford showed everyone last season: a creative head coach (like Sean Payton) can utilize Yelder as a "weapon".
The biggest worry that the Saints may have going forward with Yelder is that he has only one season of production. He redshirted in 2013, didn’t play a snap in 2014, and only contributed as a special teams player for the final four games of 2015.
He played in every game in 2016, but it was exclusively all on the special teams unit; and he didn’t record a single catch in the Hilltoppers offense. But finally in 2017, he broke out in Western Kentucky’s pass-happy offense as part of Sanford's diverse scheme.
Bottom line: Yelder is still largely unproven as a tight end and only has a single year of production on his college resume; whereas almost all of the other tight ends from this year's class had three or even four years starting experience in college.
When Yelder and the rest of the Saints rookie class report to Saints Rookie Camp next month, the Saints coaching staff will get a better assessment of Yelder's capabilities, and see where it goes from there.
But make no mistake about it: Yelder has the natural gifts to become the "receiving threat" as a tight end, that the Saints have desperately lacked for the past couple of seasons.
And who BETTER to mentor Yelder, than the 37 (and soon-to-be 38)-year old Watson?
Should Yelder live up to his full potential (there's that word again), he could become a legitimate star as a part of the Saints offense while catching passes from one of the NFL's greatest QB's ever in Drew Brees.
It's all about time, and opportunity.