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Tight end Josh Hill provides large presence for New Orleans Saints

'Probably the best I've ever been around'

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The full appreciation of Josh Hill is measured by this: The New Orleans Saints are a lot less functional when the seventh-year tight end isn't available to play.

It's not so much the individual numbers, though Hill contributes there, too. Three touchdown receptions in 25 catches this season roughly equates to a score every third time he makes a catch (he also has a five-touchdowns-in-14-catches season on his resume, so his catch-to-touchdown ratio has been, at times, a number that grabs the attention).

And he forever will be the answer to this trivia question: Who was on the receiving end of Drew Brees' 540th career touchdown pass, which allowed Brees to break Peyton Manning's NFL record?

But it's the things that go unnoticed by most that make Hill most noticed in the locker room, things that have made him a starter in 54 of his 103 regular-season games – and three of six playoff games in entering this season. The playoff total could increase to four of seven Sunday, when the Saints (13-3) play Minnesota (10-6) in an NFC Wild Card game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Too, those traits have allowed him to remain a valuable asset even while sharing duties with at least eight tight ends on the game day roster – nine, if we're going to include backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the mix – since he came to New Orleans in 2013 as an undrafted rookie from Idaho State.

Amid the list of Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson, Michael Hoomanawanui, Coby Fleener, John Phillips, Garrett Griffin, Dan Arnold, Jared Cook and Taysom Hill, each has possessed a set of skills that differentiate from Josh Hill. None has possessed Josh Hill's specific combination.

"He's a guy we use in the run game, in pass protection," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "He does a lot of things well. He plays on special teams, plays a lot of snaps each week – he's done so for quite a while.

"He's someone that has real good athleticism and it's difficult (to replicate him) because a lot of different personnel groups might run through him. He might be in the base, he might be in '11.' Certainly, Jared (Cook) is playing a lot of snaps. The two of them together will play a lot of snaps. He's one of those guys that does a lot of things well."

No one recognizes that better than the men in the tight end meeting room.

"Josh is an all-around tight end that does it all," said Cook, an 11-year veteran who joined the Saints as an unrestricted free agent this season. "Back-side blocks, front-side blocks, blocking out in space, slide-by blocks, gets open in the open field.

"Josh does it all and he's really good at it, probably the best I've ever been around. Just tremendous heart, a tremendous leader. Just a good all-around tight end."

Hill's versatility feeds into positive deception for the Saints.

On the record-setting touchdown pass from Brees, against Indianapolis on Dec. 16, Hill decoyed as a blocker on first-and-goal from the Colts' 5, slipped behind a defender and caught an easy toss from Brees, who put perspective on the moment and player.

"First of all, I love the fact it was Josh Hill," Brees said. Hill was one of the team's honorary game captains that week. "We basically roasted him in our Saturday meeting (before the Colts game), so it was pretty fitting that it was him, especially for the fact that, here's an undrafted free agent who joined our team in 2013 ...

"(He is) the epitome of a great teammate. (He is) kind of an unsung hero, a guy that throughout the majority of his career has just been required to do the dirty work, been a four-quarter core special teams guy and whenever he has had to step in and increase that role, as many times as he has done before, he's done an unbelievable job.

"I have so much trust and confidence in him. The funny thing was that as we walk up to the ball, the play call comes in and I am thinking touchdown. I see the look, and I say, 'It's definitely a touchdown, right?' It played out just the way we thought as far as the play call and him being wide open on the run action. I am really glad that it was him."

The Saints always are glad to have him on the field. When he's not, like he was for a portion of the 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay on Nov. 17, New Orleans feels it. Hill left that game with a mild concussion.

"We lost Josh Hill, and Josh is one of those guys that may be somewhat under the radar, but losing him was like losing your front door," Payton said after the game. "All of a sudden there are 58 plays on the call sheet and he was involved in a lot of them, so we spent a lot of time trying to re-personnel group some of our plays – which ones we still want to run and which ones can we not run.

"So, there was the better part of a quarter going back through all of our offense that was maybe plays that were Josh Hill friendly. Now, can we still run those plays with someone else or not? That is something that took a bit of time."

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