Saints free agent review: TE Juwan Johnson

Few of the New Orleans Saints’ pending free agents enjoyed as productive a 2022 season as Juwan Johnson. The collegiate wide receiver completed his transition to tight end and led the team with 7 touchdown catches, earning his place in the starting lineup with greatly improved skills as a blocker. His offseason efforts to bulk up and work on his blocking technique paid off to keep him on the field and win more targets in the passing game.

Now Johnson is headed for free agency with restricted status, which basically means the Saints can at least exercise the right of first refusal if he gets other contract offers. More likely is that they’ll retain him on a one-year contract that would bring back draft pick compensation if another team signs Johnson away. Either way, the team has a decision to make. So let’s review his 2022 campaign:

Season stats

Johnson had his best year as a pro, ending the season with 42 receptions for 508 receiving yards with 7 touchdown catches through 16 games. He was most dangerous in the red zone with 5 of his scores coming inside the opposing 20-yard line, where Johnson’s size gave him an edge in condensed spaces. But he deserves some credit for nice moves after the catch, too; Johnson averaged 3.9 yards gained after the catch per reception, which was third-most on the team among players with 30 or more targets. Only Alvin Kamara (8.2) and Rashid Shaheed (6.2) were better.

Snap counts

Johnson commanded the role as New Orleans’ top tight end, and he played more snaps on offense than every other skills position player on the team. Only quarterback Andy Dalton logged more snaps (736) among the non-linemen. 326 of Johnson’s 647 snaps on offense (about 50%) saw him move to the inline alignment after he did so on just 32% of his reps a year ago. He also saw heavy reps on special teams, running with the kick return and coverage units as well as the field goal kick squad.

2022 season review

Again, Johnson deserves a lot of credit for the strides he made in 2022. He played up to his potential and looks to have found something special in moving to a new position. Now he’s on the cusp of earning a nice contract extension, if not this year than next season. New Orleans needs to continue featuring him on offense and maybe try some more targets as a vertical threat downfield. They shouldn’t wait until they’re in scoring position to give him a shot at making a play.

Future value to Saints

Johnson was a rare silver lining for the Saints offense in 2022, and he’s their best option at tight end right now, so it makes a ton of sense to keep him around and continue investing resources in his development. Adam Trautman hasn’t progressed much year over year. Taysom Hill isn’t a full-time tight end. Johnson is very likely the future of the position for New Orleans, unless they spend a high draft pick on a player this spring.

Stay or go?

This is easy: Johnson should stay around for 2023, and hopefully sign a multiyear extension so we aren’t having this discussion again in 2024. He’s earned it. And hammering out a long-term contract now would be good for him and the Saints, giving Johnson some security while crossing an item off New Orleans’ to-do list well in advance. The only reason an extension shouldn’t be discussed is if Johnson himself declines it. If he takes another step forward next season, he’ll have a convincing argument to earn a top-of-market deal as an unrestricted free agent the following offseason.

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Story originally appeared on Saints Wire