New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson: "12 Personnel" Nightmares

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New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson:
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor
Jimmy Graham (Foreground) Ben Watson (Background) warming up before the Saints preseason game against the Oakland Raiders

The New Orleans Saints may have the most diverse offensive personnel groupings in the entire NFL. I'm convinced that they could possibly mimic most offenses on any given game day. The Saints offense can strike and score with an explosive play on any down. That's why it may come as a shock that I believe the addition of tight end Ben Watson may be the personnel move that gets the Saints back to the promised land.

Now I can see you, the reader, rolling your collective eyes. You're asking why would a veteran tight end entering his 10th season mean anything to the perennial No. 1 offense in the league? I believe that the Saints are at their finest as an offense when they rely on physicality—and Ben Watson brings just that to the four "receiver" sets.

Let's be honest with ourselves: The Saints' No. 1 offensive priority is to pass the ball. With the tandem of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, why wouldn't it be? The duo makes up one of the most knowledgeable, savvy and productive coach/player duos in the entire league. Not relying on these two to work magic would be a form of football blasphemy.

But let's be real: The Saints need to establish the line of scrimmage, execute in short areas to extend downs and—most importantly—limit turnovers to move to the front of the pack in the NFC. Relying mostly on the vertical part of their offensive scheme may prove to be their undoing in my humble opinion. Occasionally stretching the defense, while operating a two-tight end set would be just what the doctor ordered in 2013 and beyond.

To truly operate from within the "12 personnel" set, a team must have two tight ends with similar yet different skill sets. The best use of 12 personnel in recent memory has to be the New England Patriots' use of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

The creativity of the Patriots staff was never more apparent than on the opening drive of a 2011 playoff matchup with the Denver Broncos. Going 80 yards in five plays, with a mix of no-huddle (only one substitution) and multiple formations, the Patriots managed to redefine what tight ends truly are. Both Hernandez and Gronkowski lined up all over the formations and forced the defense to stay in their normal base package. 

New England 12 Personnel

Here's "12 personnel" at its best. Hernandez started off on the left side of the line and then motioned to the backfield. Coming out in this two-tight end set forces the defense to show its hand. If the defense wants to guard against the pass, they will take out a linebacker or lineman and put in an extra corner or safety. 

Hernandez as FB

Here we have Hernandez lined up at fullback. He could essentially be a blocking back, or a back going out for a pass pattern. The option will always favor the offense.

Flexed
 

Here you have a stack set (3 x 1) that you would normally see in a four-wide receiver set. Having two tight ends like this is like having a couple of huge receivers (or a couple of small linemen).

Hernandez at RB in Shotgun

Hernandez is lined up in the backfield as a running back in this shotgun set, while Gronkowski is residing in the slot. Having Gronkowski matched up with a defensive back is a mismatch—but having him matched up with a linebacker is just unfair! 

Hernandez at HB

Gronkowski is in line on the left, with Hernandez lined up as the lone running back. (The Pats actually ran an outside zone with Hernandez that went for 43 yards! Versatility at its finest.) 

Slots

Here we have both guys flexed off the line. This set in the red zone is like stealing candy from a baby.

The options within "12 personnel" are endless when you have two players as versatile as Gronkowksi and Hernandez.

While Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson of the Saints might not possess the exact same skill set as a duo compared to Gronkowski and Hernandez—their own respective skills will suffice just fine.

 

Ben Watson

I've always been a big fan of Benjamin Watson. I first remember him as a transfer from Duke to the University of Georgia in the early 2000s. His athleticism was apparent even when his production was not. He was one of those players who you felt could be great if given more of an opportunity. (He tallied only 23 catches for 234 yards with two TDs his senior season.)

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Ben Watson

At 6'3", 258 pounds, Watson looked like he was carved from granite. An avid weightlifter and nutrition savant, Watson's physique and athleticism played a significant part in the projection of his NFL career.

Achieving a 4.5 40-yard dash—along with an ultra-impressive 48 on the mental aptitude test (the Wonderlic) at the NFL's scouting combine—all but cemented his status as a high draft pick. The defending champion New England Patriots selected Watson with the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2004 draft. Watson would finally play with a team, and QB, that could get him the ball.

After a rookie season where he played in only one game due to injury, Watson earned his keep in his second year by showing that his athleticism translated very well to the professional ranks. Catching 29 passes for 441 yards (15.2 avg) with four TDs, he became a key figure among the Patriots' multiple offensive sets. But it was a play in the Patriots' playoff game against the Denver Broncos that really endured him to the fans.

After an interception of Tom Brady one yard inside the Patriots' end zone, Watson chased down one of the fastest corners in the NFL in Champ Bailey—violently hitting him and knocking him out at the 1-yard line, while forcing a fumble in the process. The most impressive part of the whole play was that Watson wasn't on Bailey's side of the field when the turnover was forced! 

This will always be a memorable moment in Patriots lore. 

In Watson's third season, he garnered 49 catches for 643 yards with three TDs. This would prove to be the pinnacle in his Patriots tenure as he never seemed to fully break out in his six seasons with the team. 

Watson signed with the Cleveland Browns before the start of the 2010 season and subsequently had the best season of his career. As one of the primary targets for the Browns, he collected 68 catches for 763 yards with three TDs. His three seasons in Cleveland were very productive and I don't see that stopping now that Watson is in New Orleans. At 32, Watson might have the best physique on the team, and his athleticism has not waned a bit. He's an ideal No. 2 tight end at this point in his career.

 

Jimmy Graham

In my humble opinion, Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in the NFL from a receiving standpoint. While entering his fourth season in the league, Graham may have yet to reach his full potential as player. 

At 6'7", 265 pounds, Graham is much too big and athletic to be defended by anyone in the entire NFL. Every season, his technique seems to close the gap on his talent, and that's extremely inspiring considering his talent is immense.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Jimmy Graham

As a huge fan of college sports, I originally knew of Jimmy Graham as an NBA hopeful. He played four seasons for the University of Miami as a power forward. As a hoops player, Graham's talent was minuscule. He was extremely physical and would display that at all costs. I actually didn't care for Graham as he was overly physical to my team, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

He was known to leave the game with more fouls than points. He reminded me of the college version of Dennis Rodman (minus the skill).

After four years (120 games), Graham's average 4.2 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game cemented the fact that he wasn't going to make it professionally. After Graham exhausted his basketball eligibility, he applied for graduate school. This allowed him one extra year in another sport.  

Graham's lone season as a tight end for "The U" was telling enough that I believed he could be a special player in the NFL. Despite having only 17 receptions for 213 yards, with five touchdowns, Graham's size and athleticism were unparalleled. Having not played football since his senior year of high school, the fact that Graham could make somewhat of in impact was uncanny in my eyes. He definitely did the right thing by pursuing football when his basketball career ended.

Prior to the 2010 draft, Graham blew up the scouting combine. His 4.56 40-yard dash, 10-foot broad jump and 38" vertical leap would've been considered good for a much smaller player!

All it would take was a forward-thinking offensive mind to mold this vat of coal into diamonds. And with the 95th pick in the third round, head coach Sean Payton and his New Orleans Saints were just the team/scheme to oversee the process. 

 

"12 Personnel" in the "Big Easy"

Jimmy Graham's first season in New Orleans coincided with veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey's last. Shockey, like Graham, was an athletic monstrosity when he came out of "The U" in 2002. By 2010, injuries diminished most of his athleticism. At that point in time, Shockey was moreover an in-line tight end who still had great hands and a wonderful zest for the game.

Shockey's production (41 catches, 408 yards, 4 TDs), combined with a raw Jimmy Graham's (31 catches, 356 yards, 5 TDs) was nothing to write home about. As a matter of fact, it was probably in the team's best interest to run single-tight end sets until Graham realized his potential. It didn't take long at all.

Graham was one of the NFL's breakout stars in 2011. With 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs, Graham proved to be a quick study in understanding route concepts and receiving techniques in just his third consecutive year of playing football again.

Graham proved to be effective as an in-line tight end or a move tight end. He can play all three receiver spots with ease, and is a general nightmare no matter where he is lined up. If there is a critique of Graham's game, its his lack of blocking prowess while playing the traditional tight end. This is where Ben Watson comes into play.

With Graham's extreme versatility, playing him in a set with Watson is beneficial in a myriad of ways.

 

But Why?!

First of all, it assists the offense by being able to hold the defense's base set on the field. With two tight ends and two receivers, it's normally better to be in your base set to defend the added size. When one of the tight ends can block from a fullback position like Watson, having a smaller lineup would ensure the defense gets ran all over without much chance to substitute.

In addition, flexing one or both tight ends out would more than likely mean putting a linebacker or safety on an island with someone bigger, faster and stronger. Not to mention having a catch occur in space where it would be even more difficult to tackle one of these behemoths.

Having two tight ends gives a great quarterback like Drew Brees two of the biggest targets he's ever had working the short game—against linebackers who are generally a lot smaller and slower. The ability to move the chains at all times is something the Saints were lacking last season. 

More importantly it will give Brees' outside receivers the single coverage they need when the vertical game is called upon. The perceived lack of a deep threat, with the season-ending injury to Joe Morgan, would lessen when the outside guys aren't the defense's first priority.

Mostly it gives the Saints the physical presence they need to succeed in today's NFL. As great as it is to be the best passing attack in the league, it's usually the most physical team that advances and takes home the Lombardi Trophy when the playoffs roll around.

Being able to eat up clock with a physical run game while transitioning to a horizontal pass game would cut down on the crucial turnovers and shorten the game for the opposing offense. When possessions diminish, teams are forced to take more chances. This is where the Saints' new attacking defense would come into play.

The addition of Ben Watson may prove to be a bigger deal than Saints fans are giving it credit for. The one-running back and two-tight end set, may be the tweak that renders defenses helpless in 2013. Alongside the league's best tight end in Jimmy Graham, Watson may be worth his weight in gold—which would make the Saints' use of  "12 personnel" a virtual nightmare for every opponent on their schedule...

Now that's scary!

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