Thanks to winning a Division Championship and narrowly missing out on a chance to play for a shot at making the Super Bowl last year, expectations haven't been this high for a New Orleans Saints Training Camp dating back to the team's Super Bowl run nearly a decade ago, coming into this year's 2018 Training Camp.
And while fans will be clamoring to see some of their favorite players at the Practice sessions that will be open to the General Public come the first few days in August, there's one player in particular that many 'Who Dats' will have a keen eye on: former Western Kentucky University star and undrafted rookie tight end Deon Yelder.
Yelder as you likely know by now, broke out as a senior last year and may have been one of the most underrated and overlooked college players of the entire 2018 Draft class. It's the whole reason why the Saints made him a priority signing immediately after the draft's completion, by giving him a deal that included a $15,000 signing bonus and $75,000 guaranteed salary, a combined $90,000 in guaranteed money that is significantly more than most undrafted rookies receive.
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.
"I feel like I capitalized the most I could on that opportunity, and I just need to get better," Yelder told reporters after the team's rookie Mini-Camp in May.
Nevertheless, Yelder still appears to be very "raw" still and it looks as if he's going to need 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 virtually "explode" onto the NFL scene.
But before he can do that, he'll need to get the "ins and outs" (like learning better blocking technique) down of playing the position first, at the professional level.
While Yelder hopes to first make the team and prove his ability to potentially become a future NFL star, he still is essentially learning HOW to play the tight end position.
Which is exactly why you could even say that school will be IN this Summer for the 23-year old Louisville, Kentucky native.
And there's NO BETTER two teachers that Yelder could ever have, than Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell and 15-year veteran starting tight end Ben Watson.
Yelder might be in the perfect spot having signed with New Orleans, to develop his overall skills as a player. And that's because there's no better guidance that he could ever get, with both of those two men.
Campbell played the tight end position himself and played it well as a former player.
It's the main reason why Yelder decided to reach out to his former position coach Mahaffey after the Saints had expressed interest in him, to get his opinion on what to do next after deciding that Campbell would be a good fit to help him expand his game.
“I decided to come to the Saints because I like Coach Campbell, and I feel like he can help me get to the next level where I want to be, which is to become a true tight end,” Yelder said.
"Coach Campbell’s a great coach," Yelder added. "He can help me develop my game and become a true tight end, a true Y tight end, an all-around tight end who can catch and block."
For Campbell, it's an undertaking that he doesn't mind doing, especially if it benefits the team in any possible way.
"You're trying to find a diamond in the rough," Campbell said to NOLA.com beat writer Josh Katzenstein, noting how the Saints have a mostly veteran group at the position. "You'd like to find somebody that you can kind of groom and develop that you feel like can help you along the way."
And then of course there's Watson, who returned to New Orleans this off-season after the team re-signed the 37-year old and now 15th year veteran tight end in the opening wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency at the end of March.
Watson seemingly would (and likely will) be the perfect mentor for Yelder — and could help the rookie not only further develop his natural God-given gifts to become a "receiving threat" as a tight end, but perhaps, more importantly, help Yelder as an in-line blocker (the rookie's biggest weakness) as well.
New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson made the observation recently that Yelder has the most important part of playing the TE position at the pro level down already: which is that the rookie likes to hit people.
“He’s very aggressive, shows the ability to play with great leverage and hand placement," Mahaffey told Erickson in an exclusive one-on-one interview. "He’s flashed the ability to be a dominant in-line blocker."
And it just so happens that Watson's best trait still at his age, is exactly that: in-line blocking.
Which no doubt should prove to be beneficial for the rookie as he learns "on the job".
"He’s big and he can run," Payton said to reporters at Rookie Camp. "We think he catches the ball well. We have to work and get up to speed a little bit in the blocking."
Besides getting "schooled" by Campbell and Watson, Yelder will be competing for a spot on the team's Final 53-man roster, directly against fellow tight ends Josh Hill and Micheal Hoomanawanui, both talented two-way players as both receivers and as blockers, at the position.
But both Hill and Hoomanawanui will be pushing hard to backup Watson, and to stave off the hard-challenging undrafted rookie in Yelder.
One thing likely to work in Yelder's favor:
The team's coach staff is VERY high on Yelder — and it shouldn't come as a shock to anyone,if somehow Yelder "finds his way" onto the Final 53-man roster in early September when all is said and done.
If Yelder has a solid Camp and plays well in the Pre-Season games, either Hill or Hoomanawanui (or perhaps even both) could end up in a quandary career-wise, in the upcoming weeks ahead.
Katzenstein notes that the tight end position is one of the Saints' top long-term needs because none of the veterans are under contract beyond 2018. And after passing on tight ends in the draft, it's no surprise they targeted one of the top undrafted players available in Yelder.
And while Yelder most likely will make a more immediate impact on special teams this season (assuming he actually makes the team as expected that he will); there's no question that if he can learn the nuances of the position and how it's utilized within the Saints offensive scheme, he should have more than a decent opportunity to supplant either Hill or Hoomanawanui for the 3rd and final TE spot on the final roster.
That will only happen, however, if the talented young man is indeed proven to be up to the task.
Better enjoy the rest of that remaining off-season vacation while you can, rookie.