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Saints scratch a ‘must’ off the list by signing Ben Watson, which will help open up draft options

March 30, 2018 GMT

ORLANDO, Fla. — The New Orleans Saints made an important move by bringing tight end Benjamin Watson back.

On Wednesday, Watson has agreed to terms to come back to New Orleans at age 37, a source confirmed to The Advocate, two years after he posted a career year in the Saints’ offense.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the news first.

No, Watson isn’t the answer to every issue the offense faced last season, though he should help on third downs. The move is significant because Sean Payton laid out three “musts” earlier this week, and tight end was one of those. The others were wide receiver and defensive end.

One down, two to go.

If the Saints don’t find a way to plug the other holes ahead of the draft, they’ll go on the clock, without a second-round pick, backed into a corner where they’ll be forced to chase needs instead of drafting the best players, which has been their method of operation and one of the reasons the team was able to turn things around last year.

It might not sound like a big deal, but if the Saints were forced to draft for need instead of taking the best players, tackle Ryan Ramczyk might not be on the team. They might not have traded up to select Alvin Kamara because Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson were already on the roster.

If recent history is any indication, things will be much better if New Orleans is drafting the players in the order Jeff Ireland and his scouts have ranked them instead letting areas of need dictate decisions.

This isn’t to say Watson doesn’t provide benefits on the field. He caught 61 passes last season for 522 yards and four touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens, who ranked 27th in the NFL on offense. Two years ago, he racked up 74 catches for 825 yards and six scores for the Saints. He can, and will, provide an element to the offense the team does not have. He is a capable blocker and should still be an above-average receiver.

The offense also changed last year to emphasize the running game. New Orleans attempted 108 passes last season with two or more tight ends on the field. Only 23 of those went to tight ends. Having a player like Watson, who can line up in those sets and block for running backs or get open for a pass, will give the Saints an option they lacked last year.

No, he’s probably not Jimmy Graham. Teams aren’t going to scheme against Watson, and his presence probably won’t open up the field for other players, but consider this: Last season, the Saints’ tight ends caught a combined 45 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns. Watson had more catches and more yards than those players, and his quarterback wasn’t Drew Brees.

This move isn’t a long-term solution. Watson is here on a one-year deal, and there are no guarantees he’ll get a second season. This also doesn’t mean the Saints will shy away from drafting a tight end if the right one is available whenever they pick. What it really means is they don’t have to reach for one in the first or third rounds.

New Orleans will probably look to make similar moves at wide receiver and defensive end. If the team locates viable options at those positions, they’ll likely be of the same ilk as Watson. The franchise-changing players are gone at this point in free agency. This is the time for bargaining shopping. Often, the best deals are made after the first wave of free agency. And if a signing doesn’t work, the cost of those mistakes are minimal.

But it isn’t just about finding help at positions of need. It’s about plugging holes so the best players are drafted, regardless of position.

It looks like New Orleans accomplished both goals with Watson.