Can Josh Hill Effectively Fill the Saints' Tight End Void?

With Jimmy Graham out of New Orleans, can Josh Hill step up and produce at tight end for the Saints?

"When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."

--Alexander Graham Bell

At the opening bell of the 2015 NFL free agency period this past Tuesday, the New Orleans Saints shocked the football community by sending away their star wide receiver tight end Jimmy Graham and his 950 yards and 12 touchdowns per-season averages to the Seattle Seahawks. Moving such a major component of the Saints offense cross-country has left a large majority of analysts viewing this move in the context of the immense losses it presents to the Saints, and the incredible fortunes gained by the Seahawks.

But what many have failed to recognize is the rare opportunity this trade has created for someone on the Saints roster to now claim those 77 receptions and 119 targets per season being vacated by the All-Pro tight end.

And it's this exact oversight that will allow many forward-looking fantasy football owners to get a steal at the tight end position in Saints third-year tight end Josh Hill this upcoming season.

Tale of the Tape

Ever since his breakout 2010 season with the Saints, Jimmy Graham has served as the prototype by which all other receiving tight ends have been measured. Graham has proven himself to be an athletic freak of nature, with a size and speed combination surpassed only by that of fellow All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. This athletic prowess has led to three Pro Bowl selections for Graham over his young five-year career.

To assess Josh Hill's capabilities in filling in for Graham on the Saints offense, it makes sense to start our analysis by first comparing his measurables against that of Graham's. Below are Josh Hill's Pro Day numbers from 2013 compared to Graham's 2009 Combine performance.

EventJosh HillPercentile RankJimmy GrahamPercentile Rank
Weight246 lbs19th260 lbs72nd
40 yd4.66 s79th4.53 s95th
Bench20 reps58thDNP-
3 Cone7.00 s80th6.9 s90th
20 ss4.19 s84th4.45 s33rd

Note: Josh Hill did not participate at the NFL Combine.

From a physical and athletic standpoint, we can see that Hill and Graham are two tight ends cut from the same cloth. When comparing Hill and Graham's metrics against all tight ends participating in the Combine between 2000-2015 (300 of them), both rank in the top quartile in height, 40-yard dash, vertical leap, broad jump, and 3-cone drill. Hill actually gains an edge on Graham in the 20-yard shuttle, a measure of agility, with his time of 4.19 seconds (84th percentile), beating Graham's 4.45 second time (33rd percentile).

Overall, we can see that Hill provides a similar blend of size, explosiveness, and agility that has made Graham such a powerful offensive threat for Drew Brees and the Saints over the years.

Track Record

From his measurables described above, it's clear that, at least from a raw talent standpoint, Hill can stand toe-to-toe with Graham.

That's great and all, but can he catch?

To answer this question, we need to go back to Hill's final season with Idaho State. During that 2012 season, he amassed a total of 70 receptions for 630 yards, accounting for for 19% and 17.1% of total team production that season, respectively. To put this in perspective, last season Jimmy Graham's 85 receptions and 889 yards accounted for 18.6% and 18.0% of total team production in 2014.

Hill has shown he can make significant contributions to the passing game when asked of him. Indeed, as seen here, here, and here, even in his short time in the NFL, Hill has displayed remarkably soft hands for a player of his position, and a natural ability to catch the ball while on the run. This is supported by his 70% catch rate last season (albeit from a very small sample size), which actually leads Jimmy Graham's 65.6% career average.

Hill's efficiency as a pass-catcher is also evident when we look at one of our signature metrics, Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target, compared to Graham's (to learn more about NEP, check out our glossary). His 0.81 Reception NEP per target last season actually beats Graham's career average of 0.73.

RecTargetsRec NEP/TargetCatch RateTotal NEP
J. Graham (Avg)77.21190.7365.7%85.91
J. Hill (2014)14200.8170.0%16.19

All in all, this provides encouraging evidence that Hill's pass-catching abilities should not be a concern for fantasy football owners next season.

But beyond these raw numbers, what made Jimmy Graham such an important asset to the Saints was his threat as a red zone target. Last season, 7 out of Graham's 10 touchdowns came on receptions within the opponents 10-yard line (9 of 10 in the red zone). Even more impressive is that all seven of Graham's receptions within 10 yards of the end zone resulted in a touchdown last year.

All signs point to Josh Hill being a more-than-adequate replacement for Graham in this department. From a physical standpoint, Hill's height, explosiveness, and vertical leaping ability makes him a formidable target in the end zone. This red zone potential is supported by his numbers over his two-year career: in just 30 targets, Josh Hill has amassed 20 receptions and accounted for 6 touchdowns. His red zone prowess is even more apparent when we consider that, in just seven career receptions within the opponent's 10-yard line, five have resulted in trips to the end zone.

Benefits from a Shift in Offensive Philosophy?

The recent moves by the Saints front offense suggest a shift in mentality from a wide-open passing game to one based around the run. Along with the trade of Graham to Seattle in exchange for Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick, the Saints re-signed their workhorse back Mark Ingram, signed the versatile running back C.J. Spiller, and moved budding wideout Kenny Stills to Miami in exchange for Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round draft pick.

This shift becomes even more apparent when we look at the offensive play-calling for the Saints the past three seasons.

SeasonRushesP/R Ratio% Recs (TEs)

As the team has shifted to a more balanced attack each subsequent season, the receptions by tight ends for the Saints has increased both in terms of total numbers and as a percentage of team receptions. This continued shift will bode well for the prospects of Josh Hill as being a major component of the offense, as the run game should set up successful play-action passes in the short game to the tight end position. Indeed, metrics from last season demonstrated that, with Ingram on the field, Drew Brees completed 69.7% of his passes for an impressive 11.2 yards per attempt.

Everything is lining up for Josh Hill to step out of Jimmy Graham's shadow and make a big splash this upcoming season for the Saints.