Teacher & Student: Saints Hoping to Pass the Torch at the Tight End Position

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Among the stand-out performers for the New Orleans Saints thus far through the first week’s worth of Practice at their 2018 Training Camp: starting tight end Ben Watson and the young man who very possibly could take over that role from Watson someday: undrafted rookie tight end Deon Yelder.

The 37-year old Watson ― who is in his 15th NFL season while also serving as Yelder’s mentor this Summer as the rookie learns the “ins and outs” of playing at the NFL level ― made one of the highlight plays of the first 5 practices that have been conducted thus far, when he he went up high and absorbed a hit in team drills to catch a pass from Drew Brees during the 2nd day of practice.

Meanwhile, the rookie Yelder made a few nice plays of his own, including that pass right above from fellow UFDA rookie QB JT Barrett during 11-on-11’s in that same practice.

It was a very encouraging sign to see Yelder in particular stand out, given that he 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, the talented Yelder has the potential to virtually “explode” onto the NFL scene. And there’s no better situation for that to happen than in New Orleans with the Saints.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

That’s because of the “teacher – student” dynamic that has since developed between himself and the wily veteran Watson, who returned to New Orleans this off-season in the opening wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency at the end of March.

Obviously Watson still has a lot of “gas left in the tank”. And that’s something that should benefit Yelder as he learns from Watson, moving forward.

Watson seemingly is 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 become a better blocker as well.

“I’m excited for him. I’m excited to watch him develop. I’m excited to have conversations with him where he says stuff like, ‘You know, my parents are not that much older than you…”, said Watson to the media regarding Yelder the other day; with his final sentence prompting a roar of laughter from local reporters covering the team.

Yelder was at it yet again during Practice #4 this past Sunday, hauling in a TD pass in red zone drills from QB Drew Brees while showing off the receiving capability that’s made him one of the more exciting rookies to watch in Camp, and who no doubt should see more opportunities once the Pre-Season gets underway for the Saints a week from this Thursday Night against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, FL.

It’s during these upcoming Pre-Season games next month that Yelder hopes to prove himself worthy of making the Final 53-man Roster; by the time that the final cuts are made prior to Labor Day Weekend.

Yelder’s competition for a roster spot behind Watson are veterans Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui (who’s currently on the club’s physically unable to perform list), and 2017 undrafted rookie Dan Arnold, who the team is giving a shot to earn a back-up TE spot after he decided to convert from wide receiver to tight end.

While it’s been a relatively quiet Camp for Hill thus far, Yelder and Arnold are both pushing hard for what’s likely going to be the 3rd and final TE spot; with the eventual winner not likely to be determined until the final Pre-Season game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Superdome on Thursday Night, August 30th.

But nevertheless: you’d have to believe that based on the first 5 practices that have been conducted thus far, that Yelder appears to have a slight edge as far as that’s concerned; while also appearing to be “on schedule” thus far in his development.

Saints fans will want to keep in mind that Yelder 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.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

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”.

Photo courtesy of the WKU Herald

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.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

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 there’s no better two teachers that Yelder could ever have, than Watson and Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell.

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, who also doubles as the team’s Assistant Head Coach under Sean Payton, played the tight end position himself and played it well as a former player.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch

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.”

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hinton, The New Orleans Advocate

Watson can be the perfect “teacher” 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.

As the Saints begin their 2nd week of Practice tomorrow, we’ll see if the 23-year old Louisville, Kentucky native is capable of defying the odds and becoming the next “undrafted steal” for New Orleans.

But first, Yelder needs to build upon his rookie resume, and that means staving off Arnold (and Hoomanwanui when and if he returns to action) and earning his way onto the Final Roster.

And IF that does turn out to be the case?

Then the Saints and their fans can rest easy in the knowledge that the “passing of the torch” from Watson to Yelder, hopefully will yield great results in the months (and years) that still lie ahead……….

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