The New England Patriots are pulling a page out of Grover Cleveland’s playbook and bringing back old friend Ben Watson. Watson started his career with the Patriots but hasn’t played with the team in a decade. The Patriots are obviously familiar with Watson and have a big hole at tight end with Rob Gronkowski retired. Watson obviously isn’t capable of matching Gronkowski’s impact on the field, but can the 38-year old play a role in the offense?
How Ben Watson Impacts New England Patriots Tight End Depth Chart
Even at an advanced age, Ben Watson can still play. The Duke product spent the 2018 season with the New Orleans Saints and provided adequate production both as a receiver and a blocker. Watson finished the year with 35 receptions on 46 targets for 400 yards and two touchdowns. His 76.1% catch rate ranked seventh among tight ends and wide receivers with 40 or more targets, which shows that he still has reliable hands and the ability to haul in targets.
The advanced analytics tell a similar story. According to Sharp Football Stats, Watson had a 108 passer rating and a 64% success rate when targeted. Success rate essentially measures if a play picks up enough yardage to set up the offense for the ensuing play, and Watson was one of the most efficient receivers on the Saints. Among Saints players with five or more targets, only Michael Thomas had a higher success rate (68%) than Watson.
The Patriots love versatility, and the Saints weren’t afraid to use Watson in a wide variety of roles. According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints utilized Watson all over the offensive formation. The former first-round pick played 295 snaps as an in-line tight end to go along with 177 snaps in the slot and 53 snaps out wide.
Watson can still play a meaningful role in an offense, but he’s not the player he once was. New England prefers their tight ends to block and catch passes at a high level, and Watson is a little one-dimensional at this point in his career.
According to Pro Football Focus, Watson recorded a 55.5 run blocking grade on 206 run blocking snaps in 2018. This grade, while not horrible, still leaves a lot to be desired. Watson helped open holes for Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney back in the day, but he doesn’t have the same ability to move linebackers like he used to.
Watson has a reliable set of hands but he isn’t a big play threat. Obviously, nobody’s expecting a 38-year old tight end to be an explosive weapon, but he’s notably ineffective with the ball in his hands. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Watson averaged just 2.6 yards of separation per route run. This number is slightly below average, even for a tight end.
What really stands out is the yards after the catch. According to Next Gen Stats, Watson should have averaged 4.2 yards after the catch per reception. Instead, he averaged just 3.0 yards. This 1.1 disparity was the eighth-worst among all pass-catchers in the 2018 season. Watson can haul in passes thrown his way, but he won’t give anything after the catch.
How Watson Fits in the Depth Chart
Ben Watson is the clear-cut top option on the Patriots tight end depth chart. He’s a proven player who can make an impact in the passing game and should have a little more left in his tank. The former first-round pick has strong hands and catches just about everything thrown his way. Additionally, he’s typically good at picking up the required situational yardage and is capable of lining up all over the field.
That said, he’s not a perfect tight end. Watson’s run blocking isn’t what it used to be and he’s not as explosive in the open field. This isn’t surprising considering Watson’s advanced age, but it’s still worth pointing out.
Watson is a safe bet to make the 53-man roster and his arrival could be bad news for Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The former second-round pick showed promise as a run-blocker last year, but that was an outlier performance. Overall, Seferian-Jenkins has been a pass-catching tight end, and Watson is the better option. New England only signed Seferian-Jenkins to a veteran minimum contract, so it’s not like money is a holdup.
Andrew Beck and Ryan Izzo should continue to battle it out for the Dwayne Allen role on the 2019 roster. Both players offer decent upside as in-line blocking tight ends, and Watson’s arrival shouldn’t affect their roster status. Matt LaCosse will continue to battle for depth and will probably serve as the primary backup to both Watson and the in-line blocking role.
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