Saints tight end eyeing significant leap

Published 7:31 pm Monday, September 4, 2023

By John DeShazier

New Orleans Saints

Juwan Johnson is stalking “great.”

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The New Orleans Saints’ fourth-year tight end, an undrafted receiver in 2020 who changed positions last year, probably scratched the “good” mark last year, when he led the Saints with seven receiving touchdowns – tied for third-most by NFL tight ends – and caught 42 passes for 508 yards.

But there’s meat on the bone, and with the 2023 regular season 10 days away, and the Saints set to open Sept. 10 against Tennessee in the Caesars Superdome, Johnson wants it.

“I’ve always seen myself being a good player,” he said. “That’s how I’ve always carried myself, going into high school and college, me being a good player but I know I always could be great. That’s the tier I’m trying to break into, being great.

“I do a lot of things good, but I know there are improvements that I can make both receiving, pass blocking and just being a leader. Those are all things and they’re very tangible, and I think if I stay consistent in what I’m doing – guys gravitate to me just because of what I try to do consistently, not say one thing and talk out of the other side of my mouth. I just try to be who I am, and I think that gravitates on the field and off the field. So just keep doing that, and I think it’s going to be good.”

Throughout training camp, it has looked good for Johnson, who appeared to develop a cohesion with quarterback Derek Carr. The process wasn’t nearly as simple as Johnson and Carr have made it appear to be, but the chemistry undoubtedly has been there.

“I just think it’s a connection that we sort of built,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely something that we’ve been working on for a while, since OTAs. I’ve told him how I see things and we’re on the same accord in terms of how he sees things.

“The one thing about it is just that I know where he’s going to throw it and I try to be there. The one thing I learned from Tight End U – I went this past summer, and I learned a lot from (Chiefs tight end) Travis Kelce, and he was talking about the piano. You know how one hand plays on one key and the other hand plays on the other key. As long as that quarterback is one tone and I’m on the other, and we all work together to make a melody, that’s sort of how a QB and a receiver have to be.

“So, I’m kind of doing my thing in getting open, and he’s doing his thing to drop back, avoid getting sacked, things like that. It just becomes beautiful music when we all put it together. I just try to get open, I’m just doing my job. I sort of have the easy job. He has the hard job of making checks and stuff like that, so he throws the ball, I just have to make a play.”

The three-day summit allowed for bonding and collaboration among the NFL’s best at the position.

“I think going into the tight end position, just to start, I didn’t know too much about it,” Johnson said. “When I first started, I didn’t what a technique was. I didn’t know a nine-tech, an eight – I didn’t know any of that. I just went into it and was blocking bodies.

“It was pretty tough for me to start off, because I would go into it and people would be like, ‘Just block the seven-tech.’ I was like, I don’t know if that’s right, left, if he’s inside. I had no idea. That was just more of a self-evaluation, more self-study for me in just investing in what I need to know.

“Tight End U taught me a lot because I was around tight ends that I haven’t been around before. I think, personally for me, I haven’t learned a lot from guys before other than (former Saint and current Denver Bronco tight end) Adam Trautman, who’s helped me out tremendously in my development. But I think other than him, I haven’t learned a whole lot from players in terms of, ‘Yeah, you should do this,’ and, ‘This is how we do things, this is how you set.’ So for me, it was really good for me to go there and learn a lot.”

Even before that, Johnson appeared to be poised for a breakout season, having shown steady improvement each year.

“Honestly, a breakout is whatever you make it,” he said. “Everybody has their own sort of ‘breakout,’ what it means. I could say yes, or whatever, but at the end of the day, if I have one what does it matter if we don’t win? Because at the end of the day, that’s why we’re here.

“That’s why D.A. (Coach Dennis Allen) put this team together, that’s why Derek is here, that’s why Mike T. (receiver Michael Thomas) is back, so we can have sort of a breakout team, so we can win. So we can have another division title, so we can clinch that No. 1 seed, so we can win the Super Bowl.

“So I can say I want to have a breakout season. Who doesn’t? At the end of the day, I’m tired of going home after the last game, watching teams that I know we beat, or we could have beaten, or we’re better than who are in the playoffs.”

TRANSACTIONS: The Saints signed running backs Tony Jones and Jordan Mims to the practice squad, and released running back Ellis Merriweather and linebacker Ty Summers.

OUT, IN: Rookie running back Kendre Miller (hamstring) did not practice Thursday, but tight end Taysom Hill returned.