Is Benjamin Watson a Legitimate Fantasy Football Option?

Watson is putting up a career-best season in New Orleans at age 34, but is it sustainable?

After all-world tight end and focal point of the New Orleans Saints’ offense, Jimmy Graham, got traded to the Seattle Seahawks, there wasn't much excitement around the tight end position in New Orleans heading into the fantasy football season -- unless you believed in Josh Hill's small-sample success from 2014.

Still, opportunity for a tight end to fill the void was there. That void was huge: 4,752 receiving yards and 51 touchdowns in just five seasons. Graham left a major hole in the offense with monster statistics and over 85 receptions a season over the last four years.

Considered a sleeper for most of the summer, 25-year-old Josh Hill, was thought by many to make the leap to fantasy relevance in his third season. Some thought he could fill a portion of the role left behind by Graham. The only options were between Hill and 34-year-old Benjamin Watson.

It seemed unlikely for a tight end at that age to provide much fantasy value after serving as mostly a complementary option since joining the Saints in 2013. 

Both players were barely drafted in fantasy leagues, as there was not a consensus of which tight end would win the position battle until late in the season -- when it appeared the block-first Watson would win the job. With the Saints history of using a variety of players, the likelihood was that both would sap out enough value from the other, rendering both unusable. Based on ESPN’s Live Draft Results, Watson settled as the 24th overall tight end drafted.

Surprisingly, though, Watson has exploded into fantasy owner’s minds with strong performances in recent weeks. With the tight end landscape relatively weak and hard to predict, only a few have proven to be worthy of weekly starter status. Could Watson break into that middle tight end tier?

Watson has made his case as a legitimate starting option over the last few weeks. The Saints started the season rough, with questions surrounding quarterback Drew Brees. An early-season shoulder injury forced Brees to miss a game, but he has looked close to his Pro-Bowl self since returning.

Watson’s Breakout

Most fantasy owners didn’t take notice of Watson’s fantasy prospects until his Week 6 outburst.

In his first four games, Watson totaled just 12 catches for 103 yards and zero touchdowns. Since the slow start, his output has increased dramatically, catching 26 passes for 369 yards and 3 scores.

Our numbers indicate Watson has given the offense a boost. His Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target is 0.93, ranking him second out 13 tight ends with at least 30 catches on the season. Watson sits between the legendary Gary Barnidge at one and Rob Gronkowski at three in the per-target metric.

NEP, by the way, quantifies how a player performs, and it indicates how many points above or below expectation-level he adds to his team's expected scoring output. The higher the score, the more positive impact a player has.

Watson’s career best 0.94 Reception NEP per target came in his final season as a Patriot in 2009 on just 29 receptions. He has already exceeded that reception total halfway through this season.

Watson has flirted with fantasy lineups in the past and put together semi-successful seasons. He’s usually fallen somewhere around the tight end streamer range. Although far from a Hall of Famer, he has produced solid season totals over his career.

Moving Forward

If his stats hold steady, his current projections of 76 catches, 944 yards, and 6 touchdowns would all match or surpass career-highs in those statistical categories. This would be a surprising development for a player in his 12th NFL season.

He wouldn’t be the only tight end over 30 to surprise this year, as Gary Barnidge is having a late career breakout. Barnidge’s career stats prior to this season make Watson look like Tony Gonzalez.

Whether Watson continues this production is the question that remains. The Saints should continue to throw frequently, as their defense is one of the NFL’s worst. Based on our metrics, their Adjusted Defensive NEP is last in the NFL. There should be more shootouts in the future for Saints players to rack up fantasy points.

Continued Success

Although Watson’s statistics are projected to be some of the best of his career, he doesn’t command the targets or bring to the offense what Graham did. Brees will look to Watson like any other cog in the offense, and his production will vary on a weekly basis.

Though he has posted double-digit targets in two of his past three games, those are the only two contests during which he surpassed five targets this year.

There are many tight ends with higher ownership percentages that are not producing as Watson has. He isn’t a no-brainer, every-week starter, but he can help a team in need of a tight end.

Like his previous career best years, Watson is best treated as a matchup dependent tight end streamer who could return low-end TE1 value down the stretch.