By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
UPDATE, Oct. 14, 2019: After releasing Watson a week ago, the Patriots re-signed the veteran tight end on Oct. 14, when a roster spot was opened up with Jakob Johnson moving to IR. As such, the story below has newfound relevance.
BOSTON (CBS) — Entering the season without future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots likely expected a decent drop-off in production at the tight end position. But they might not have been ready for it to be quite so staggering.
Through four weeks of the 2019 season, Patriots tight ends have just four total receptions. Matt LaCosse has two receptions for 33 yards, and Ryan Izzo has two receptions for 44 yards, though 41 of those yards came on one single play. It’s the second-worst production out of tight ends across the league.
With the offense struggling mightily this past Sunday, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels could surely use a boost in the passing game from the tight ends. Fortunately for them, Benjamin Watson returns from suspension this week.
Granted, Watson is a veteran’s veteran, as he’s going to celebrate his 39th birthday in Week 16 of this season. To rely heavily on any skill player at age 38/39 would certainly be an unwise course of action, of course. But with more than 500 receptions and almost 6,000 yards to his name, Watson’s experience is going to prove useful for the offense as a whole.
To get an idea of what Watson can provide, let’s take a look at some of his highlights from last year with the Saints. While his days of racking up 100-yard days or chasing down All-Pro defensive backs from 100 yards away may be over, you’ll see that Watson should still be an effective contributor to the Patriots’ offense.
Week 3: 27-Yard Reception vs. Atlanta
There’s nothing complex about this one, as Watson managed to get behind the linebacker on a simple seam route and display the ball skills that have made him a viable tight end for 15 years.
It’s a different play, obviously, but the end result does not look entirely dissimilar to a diving effort made by a Patriots tight end last year.
That’s not as easy as these fellows make it look.
Week 3: 17-Yard Reception vs. Atlanta
Watson showed that if you give him a free release off the line, he can still beat you — even if you’re a cornerback. Atlanta might have liked its chances with a moderately quick corner against a veteran tight end, but Watson had no issue whatsoever getting open and then holding on to the ball through contact.
Week 7: 1-Yard Touchdown Reception Vs. Ravens
The Patriots’ red zone offense has not been good this season, scoring touchdowns on just 50 percent of their red zone trips thus far. That ranks 21st in the league. In goal-to-go situations, they’ve scored touchdowns 70 percent of the time, which ranks 19th. The addition of a reliable tight end target may help in that regard.
Watson didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy on this touchdown reception, but he did manage to avoid contact at the line to give his quarterback an incredibly easy touchdown pass.
Watson caught six passes (on six targets) for 43 yards and the touchdown that day against his former team.
Week 7: 15-Yard Reception On An Early Third-And-12 vs. Baltimore
Again, while not the most physically impressive feat, this 15-yard pickup to convert a third-and-long shows how Watson knows how to find the line to gain and find room to get open to make for as easy a third-and-12 conversion as a team could ever hope to have.
Week 7: Another Simple Third-Down Conversion
It’s elementary, but sometimes running to the sticks is all it takes to convert a third-and-8. Watson once again showed good strength to hold on to the ball while taking contact.
Week 9: Beating Barron For 17
Lined up split out to the left side by a few yards, Watson burned past Mark Barron (technically a linebacker, though he was drafted as a safety). In the early days of Watson’s career, he probably would have been off to the races after catching that pass with an extra step of separation. Nevertheless, a 17-yard gain always plays.
Week 9: Hand Strength, Ball Skills vs. Rams
The biggest gain of the year for Watson was an impressive one, as he adjusted to an underthrown ball and showed tremendous strength to maintain possession all the way through the ground. It went for 32 yards, and the Saints would end up scoring a go-ahead touchdown on this drive.
Watson also absolutely torched linebacker Cory Littleton (star of that earlier Gronkowski GIF) on a wheel route on that play. Heck of a play by Watson, through and through.
Week 9: 13-Yard Touchdown/Baby Announcement Vs. Rams
You may remember this as the time that Benjamin Watson announced that his wife was pregnant with twins, giving the couple their
300th sixth and seventh children. It came after Watson fully sold that he was run blocking (similar to the work that sprung Izzo vs. the Jets this year). Watson then burned past Cory Littleton, who would certainly not be enjoying this particular story on the internet if he were to ever stumble upon it.
Week 12: 20-Yarder Vs. Falcons
Watson was in the right flat when he looked back and saw Brees scrambling, so he broke up the right sideline. Though he didn’t gain tremendous separation from linebacker Brooks Reed. But a perfectly placed pass allowed Watson to haul in what would be considered a rather challenging catch while running along the boundary.
Week 14: Two Tough Catches In Traffic For First Downs vs. Buccaneers
A recurring theme, Watson found the line to gain, made himself open for his QB, and then hung on to the football while absorbing some heavy contact. The first came in the first quarter, and the other came in the fourth quarter. Both moved the chains, and both came on drives that ended in points.
Week 15: Diving Catch vs. Panthers
With Brees having an eternity to stand in the pocket, the QB patiently waited for Watson to get behind the linebackers. Brees laid out a deep ball and Watson made a tremendous diving catch for a gain of 28. (He got up and ran for more yards, but Carolina successfully challenged that Thomas Davis got a finger on him while he was down.)
What stands out on this play is that after running the play-action fake, only two Saints players ran routes past the line of scrimmage, against six defensive backs and linebackers in coverage. Watson nevertheless easily found a soft pocket to run toward, leading to the long connection.
Week 17: Big Gain Vs. Panthers
Watson was standing up, off the line to the right on this play-action fake, allowing him to get a step on the defense. Once again, Watson found a soft pocket in the Carolina defense, picking up 18 yards on this one.
He may not have the blazing speed of his youth, but he’s still fast enough to beat linebackers and even some defensive backs. His ball skills remain impeccable, as he’s shown tremendous strength and focus to haul in passes while absorbing heavy contact — both from opposing players and from the turf. He’s shown a nose for the sticks, too, which might help the Patriots when it comes to that lingering issue of going three-and-out.
Additionally, much of Watson’s success came after play-action, which is interesting when you consider that Watson isn’t exactly known for his run-blocking — especially not at this stage of his career. Nevertheless, his ability to fake the run block before releasing on a route remains a strength.
Watson only had two receptions in the preseason this year, as a dirty hit from Eric Reid ended his night early in Watson’s only action with Tom Brady. Watson’s first catch came on a pass from Brian Hoyer on a simple crosser to beat zone coverage for a gain of 14. The lone catch from Brady came when Watson chipped a pass rusher before escaping to the right flat on a third-and-10. Out of other options, Brady threw to Watson, who caught the ball two yards downfield, put a move on Luke Kuechly to get past the linebacker, and turned it into a gain of 9 yards.
In that sense, it’s difficult to know exactly how McDaniels plans on utilizing Watson. But with such little production coming from the LaCosse/Izzo duo to this point of the season, it’s fair to expect a moderate bump in activity from Patriots tight ends in the coming weeks.