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John DeShazier: Benjamin Watson ready to earn his spot on New Orleans Saints

Posted Mar 29, 2018

Veteran tight end returns after two seasons with the Ravens

Benjamin Watson well knows what it’s like to be a New Orleans Saint and, as a tight end, what it’s like to be a top target for quarterback Drew Brees.

From 2013-15 he was a key member of the franchise and in ’15 – his 12th NFL season – he had his best year with career highs in receptions (74) and receiving yards (825), and tying his best with six receiving touchdowns.

So, understandably, he envisioned greener grass when the opportunity to rejoin the Saints presented itself this offseason. And the free agent did just that, agreeing to a one-year deal with the defending NFC South Division champions Wednesday.

“I’m excited about returning,” he said. “Every team is different and so as far as where I fit, it’s going to be a situation where I have to figure that out through the OTA process, through the training camp process. You’ve got to earn your spot on any team, you’ve got to earn the ability to take the field and the trust and all that.

“(But) I am happy that there’s some familiarity there and that I have played here before, and that I know Drew and Coach (Sean Payton) and have an idea of the offense. That’s the great thing, coming somewhere where obviously there will be some new wrinkles in the offense and probably some new terminology that I don’t know, but everything won’t be totally foreign. So I am happy about that. But again, every year is different. It’s a matter of fighting to earn a spot.”

True, the versatile Watson, who’s as valuable as a blocker as he is a receiver, won’t be handed anything. But the fact that he’s rejoining the team, just days after Payton said that acquiring help at tight end was a “must,” is a positive sign that he was a priority signing.

So, too, is the fact that Watson was able to return last season after rupturing his Achilles in ’16 and missing that season. In ’17, he led Baltimore with 61 receptions (for 522 yards, with four touchdowns). Last season, Saints tight ends combined for 45 receptions for 478 yards and four touchdowns.

“The Achilles was very difficult,” he said. “I’ve had a number of injuries; I’ve had about seven surgeries, including ACL, another knee surgery, an ankle – the list goes on with football and the things that have happened to me. But the Achilles was tough because it is a tendon, it’s weight-bearing, it doesn’t get a lot of blood flow. You battle your calf muscle being very weak and atrophied. There’s still some strength that I still have to get back from that.

“There are a lot of guys, myself included, it takes a couple of years before you get to the best that you’ll ever be. But the Ravens did a good job of rehabbing me. They’ve had quite an experience with Achilles’ in Baltimore, so I guess if there’s a place for me to tear it, it would have been Baltimore, with the experience that they’ve had rehabbing Achilles tendons. And they did a fabulous job of taking me through that grind.

“My family was very supportive, my wife took care of all of us while I was incapacitated for months, laying in the bed. But I knew I wanted to play again. And God allowed me to play. He allowed me to come back on to the field. There are still some challenges, there were some challenges last year where I didn’t quite feel like myself sometimes, but I was able to play. So I’m very, very grateful for that.”

Watson said he also wanted to get back on the field for his children.

“We pray together every night as a family,” he said. “My kids literally prayed for my Achilles for 365 days straight. Even once I was healthy technically, they were still praying for me to get better and I wanted them to see Daddy go through something, go through some adversity, and fight back. Because that’s something that they’re going to have to do throughout their entire lives.

“Also, I still believe that if I have the ability to play, this is a great game and I love to play the game. I love the opportunities and the platform that it gives. So there was no doubt that I wanted to come back. I was just a matter of if I could, and then when I could, it was a matter of continuing to get stronger, which is what I’m still doing.”

A stronger Watson figures to strengthen the new-look Saints, as well. When last Watson was on the team, he and the Saints were finishing the second of three consecutive 7-9 seasons.

In their second season apart, New Orleans went 11-5, won its wild-card playoff game and fell one play short of advancing to the NFC Championship Game. The difference is glaring.

“The youth,” Watson said. “I think the whole league was surprised at how well the young players played last year. A lot of times when you have a draft class, you just don’t know how it’s going to go. Sometimes you may miss on an entire class and sometimes you may get a few players. And I think it was a tremendous draft class that came in.

“Having guys that could come in and contribute – not even contribute, but really play a large part and play very, very well as young players. That’s not easy to do in the NFL. It’s very hard to come in from college, at any position, and to deal with the stresses of the NFL and to play the way that they did. That was different, definitely.

“Also, just watching the Saints defensively. We played the Saints in the preseason and they played defensively very well in the preseason. You never know how that’s going to carry over into the regular season. But when you look down the line, when you look at the way they played against the run and the pass, I think defensively they played much better than when I was there a few years ago.

“It’s complementary football. That’s what every team is trying to do. Every team is trying to play complementary football because that gives you the best opportunity to win and to really go into the playoffs and do the things that you want to do.”

New Orleans feels it has a better chance to do those things with Watson back in the fold. He not only gives them a productive player, but also brings back one of the most respected players in the league.

Wherever he has been, Watson has risen to the top as a leader. And although he said the Saints don’t need help in that area, Watson – an author who maintains a powerful presence regarding social and political commentary – likely will assume a role in that tier just the same.

“Any time you’re over, let’s say, 30-something years old and over year 10, I think you’re automatically in that role (as a leader),” he said. “But this team has leadership. I haven’t been here the last few years, I’m the new guy on the block, so to speak. It’s not like you come in and you just become a leader.

“I think part of leadership is guys seeing your work ethic, and hearing you and talking to you about things off the field. There has to be a trust factor there and obviously I have that with some of the guys that are still there, but the guys that were younger when I was here the first time are the leaders. The Mark Ingrams, the Cam Jordans, Terron (Armstead) – those guys are the leaders now whereas when I was here the first time, they were younger. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.

“So it’s not a matter of me coming in and having to be some sort of leader. The reason why you try to mentor guys is so that they can play that role. And I’m so proud of those guys, watching from the outside and looking in, seeing the way that they have stepped up in those roles. But being there, going to practice every day, workouts – I’ll have my chance to say my two cents here and there, and I’m looking forward to that.”