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2018 Saints Rookies

The Saints Tight End Position is Ready for “New Blood” — Can Any of the Rookie UDFA’s Step Up to the Challenge?

The New Orleans Saints have released former starting tight end Coby Fleener, according to NFL writer Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, bringing to a close the team's relationship with a player who many feel was one of the franchise's biggest "busts" among the veteran free agents that they've signed in recent years.

Fleener came to NOLA two years ago when the team signed him to a 5-year, $36 million dollar deal in 2016 NFL Free Agency. In his 2 seasons in New Orleans, Fleener played in 27 games out of a possible 34 (including the 2 recent Playoff games a few months ago) with only 8 starts, was targeted 111 times, and caught 72 passes for 926 yards and 5 TD's.

While those numbers weren't horrible per say, they didn't exactly meet up with the production that the Saints front office was hoping to get when they signed him away from the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him back in the 2012 NFL Draft's 2nd Round out of Stanford University.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

ESPN's Mike Triplett reported that Fleener was released with a "failed physical" designation; which obviously stemmed from the lingering effects that he continued to experience after getting a severe concussion against the Rams in Los Angeles back on November 26th, on a big-time hit from Rams defensive back Blake Countess.

It was the 5th concussion of his career and in fairness to Fleener, the concerns for his safety by the Saints for his well-being, had to have been a huge factor in their decision to release him. If Fleener had been medically cleared before the new league year began in March, the Saints could have saved his full $6.4 million in salary and bonuses by releasing him. Instead, $3.4 million of Fleener's salary was guaranteed for injury.

Triplett adds that the Saints designated the 29-year old Fleener as a post-June 1 release, a move which will save the team about $2.5 million against this year's salary cap, with another $3.2 million in "dead money" counting against their cap next year.

Fleener's expected release will leave the team with 37-year old Benjamin Watson as the team's likely starter going forward, with capable but not-exactly-spectacular back-ups Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui behind him. Watson returned to the team in this year's 2018 NFL Free Agency on a 1-year deal, after two years with the Baltimore Ravens.

In other words: the Saints CLEARLY are in need of some "new blood" at the TE position.

And with 3 — count'em — three rookie undrafted free agent tight ends from this year's recently-completed 2018 NFL Draft expected to compete for a spot on the team beginning with this coming weekend's Rookie Mini-Camp, can any of them step up to the challenge?

Here's a quick "refresher" of the 3 young men who are expected to compete for a shot at making the Final 53-man roster throughout the remainder of the off-season and into Training Camp and the Pre-Season, with Saints News Network's own percentage of odds of each one earning a permanent role in the Black and Gold.

Starting with.....

 

DEON YELDER, WESTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY

Photo courtesy of the WKU Herald

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.

Photo courtesy of The Louisville Courier-Journal

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. But if put in the right situation (like catching passes from Drew Brees), he has the potential to explode onto the NFL scene.

CHANCE OF MAKING THE FINAL 53-MAN ROSTER IN SEPTEMBER: 50%

 

CAM SERIGNE, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Serigne  (pronounced SAIR-in-yay) was named 1st Team All-ACC and was a "go-to target" for the Demon Deacons last season. After snatching a career-high eight touchdown receptions as a senior, the 6-3, 240-pounder was considered one of this year's biggest "sleeper" prospects.

He was projected to quickly become a favorite of whichever NFL quarterback gets the pleasure of adding him to his huddle in 2018. Possibly, that could end up being Saints QB and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.

A 5th-year / redshirt senior, Serigne played an important starting role for four years and shattered Wake Forest’s record books. He broke the school record for tight end receptions and touchdowns after just his first two seasons at the school. In his entire career at Wake Forest, Serigne hauled in 174 receptions for 2,075 yards and 21 TD's.

Saints fans won't be able to ignore the obvious Jimmy Graham comparisons for Serigne, who like Graham is considered a top-notch receiver but not all that effective as an in-line blocker either in the running game or in pass protection. But a more accurate comparison would be to former Saints tight end Billy Miller, who played for the Saints from 2006 to 2008 when Saints head coach Sean Payton first took over the team over a decade ago. 

Miller had 45 receptions for 579 yards in his last season for the Saints, but before the 2009 season started blew out his Achilles tendon in an exhibition game against the Miami Dolphins, ending his football playing career. The Saints won the Super Bowl the following February.

With regard to Serigne, Sporting News NFL Draft analyst Eric Galko says that the former Wake Forest star shows a good feel for space and how to get open. He's a smooth, agile player who can weave in and out of zone coverages, as well as make some acrobatic catches in traffic.

Galko does caution however that Serigne isn't an overly physical player, but he is an athlete with an aggressive mindset. Additionally, he also notes that Serigne is not a hulking blocker, but he can quickly get to his mark, and he has the tenacity to get after defenders.

As with most of these tight end prospects, projecting how any of them will eventually turn out to be as professionals is a bit of a 'crapshoot'; but for a team like the Saints that needs more production from this position, the rookie camp invitation to Serigne makes a lot of sense. If he's able to make the most of his opportunity, the Saints could possibly have another UDFA "steal" on their hands.

CHANCE OF MAKING THE FINAL 53-MAN ROSTER IN SEPTEMBER: 50%

 

NATE WOZNIAK, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Standing 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, Wozniak is a tight end in an offensive tackle's body, and if you're a football fan over the age of 50, then you'll know what it means to refer to him as a "throwback" to a bygone era of the sport. For comparison's sake, some will naturally think he resembles New England Patriots star TE Rob Gronkowski, but older fans might think of him as a slightly smaller version of famed 1970's Oakland Raiders tight end Dave (a.k.a.,"The Ghost to the Post") Casper, minus the receiving capability.

Wozniak completed his four year career for the Gophers last year as an "anchor" on the end of the Minnesota offensive line, and earned a reputation as a dependable blocker for the Gophers with the occasional flash of pass catching ability. In 34 games for the Gophers over his 4-year career, Wozniak caught 28 passes for 314 yards; but remarkably never got into the end zone. That's right: not a single TD during his entire time in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

SB Nation's The Daily Gopher noted that Wozniak’s ability to run block and serve as a 6th man on the offensive line is what spurred most of his draft interest, though he likely went undrafted because of what most analysts perceive as a lack of ability as a receiver / pass-catching TE.

Nevertheless, while not a top pass catching threat, he has improved his receiving over the past season or two and would not be a liability as a potential huge target in the red zone.

While most fans won’t think of Wozniak as a prototypical tight end in today's "modern" NFL, he's EXTREMELY underrated and may have a lot more potential at the next level than most observers believe.

Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman says that while Wozniak is as good a blocker as there is at the tight end position in this draft, teams are also discovering he can run routes and catch passes. Teams that worked him out in the past several months were stunned by his speed and hands, and Freeman says that Wozniak’s going to be a better pass-catcher than many know.

We all know that the NFL — and especially front office personnel men in particular — love "physical freaks" (like this year's Saints top pick Marcus Davenport, for example), and at nearly 6-foot-10 inches tall in a body made for a WWE "cage match" more so than a football field, Wozniak fits that particular description to a "T".

If he can block players at the NFL level as well as he did in college, he still will have a chance to become a #2 or #3 tight end somewhere in the League. Could that "somewhere" be New Orleans? Time will tell, in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

CHANCE OF MAKING THE FINAL 53-MAN ROSTER IN SEPTEMBER: 35%

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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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