Even with an opportunity at tight end, veteran Ben Watson has not changed his approach to summer practices with the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints traded three-time Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham to Seattle in March, did not draft a tight end and have not signed a free agent to replace Graham through early June.
That leaves Watson, who caught 20 passes in 2014 while backing up Graham, as a potential starter in his 12th year.
“I look at it as the same opportunity I always have,” said Watson, who played at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill. “You come in, you do your job and whatever happens to you, that’s what you do.”
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Doing his job in a professional manner always has been one of his best assets. Near the end of the Saints OTA workout on Thursday, he led fellow tight end Josh Hill on some extra conditioning sprints, running the width of one of the practice fields four times.
The 34-year-old Watson is the second-oldest Saints player behind Drew Brees. Similar to Brees, he takes care of his body. He is 6-feet 3, 255 pounds.
“He’s a stud,” Brees said. “He’s certainly one of the most respected guys on this team, not just for what he brings to us on the field, but what he brings to us in the locker room.”
Watson, a first-round pick by New England in 2004, spent six seasons with the Patriots and the next three with Cleveland before arriving in New Orleans in 2013.
He had a career-high 68 receptions with the Browns in 2010. But he was used primarily as a blocker in his first two seasons with the Saints, catching 19 passes in 2013 and 20 last season.
Barring a roster move – the Saints brought in free agent tight end Jermaine Gresham for a visit on Wednesday – Watson’s role as a receiver could increase.
The Saints have high hopes for third-year pro Josh Hill, who had five touchdown catches last season, but the other three tight ends on the offseason roster are undrafted free agents with no experience.
Saints coach Sean Payton was noncommittal about signing Gresham on Thursday. Gresham, who had 62 receptions for 460 yards with Cincinnati last year, had surgery for a herniated disc in his back in March.
“He’s a player that we are well aware of coming out of the draft five years ago,” Payton said. “We had a chance to visit yesterday when he flew over from Dallas so it wasn’t an overnight visit. He is recovering from an offseason surgery. I thought the visit went pretty well.”
Other than a five-catch, 43-yard outing against Tampa Bay, Watson never had more than two receptions or 18 receiving yards last season. But at one of the Saints’ recent OTA practices, he scored a 70-yard touchdown.
“There’s a general wellness about him that serves him positively, especially at this stage in his career,” Payton said. “For some players that drop-off would happen quicker, but I wouldn’t say we’ve seen that with him, and that’s a credit to how he trains and prepares and how he lives.”
Watson has turned his biggest negative – his age – into a positive with his work ethic.
“As you get older obviously you work a little harder on your physical conditioning, but you also know a little bit more about the game and you understand what you have to do and how you have to play the game,” he said. “There’s that balance between the experience and the physicality.”