|Graham is second on the Saints in receptions (24) and leads the team in receiving yards (367). (US Presswire)|
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- For years, I've always believed college basketball was filled with NFL tight ends disguised as power forwards too small for the NBA.
True story: I once asked Antonio Gates, then a power forward for Kent State basketball, why he doesn't consider playing tight end in the NFL. He kind of half blew it off at the time.
Now he's one of the game's great tight ends.
We may soon have another.
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His name is Jimmy Graham.
Graham played college basketball at the University of Miami, but was never going to sniff the NBA. He was a hatchet man, a foul-a-minute kind of player, but at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, he had soft hands and good feet, so he played one year of college football.
The Saints saw enough of him to draft him in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
I saw enough of him Sunday to think he's going to be a star.
Graham caught 10 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' 23-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Graham is the reason why this Saints offense -- and thus this Saints team -- can be even better than the 2009 team that won the Super Bowl.
That team had Jeremy Shockey. He was good.
Graham will be even better.
"Jimmy has a chance to be a great player," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "The best thing about him is deep down he is so self-motivated. He doesn't need somebody else to tell him he has a chance to be a great player. He wants to be that because that's all he knows. He's competitive. He has the fire and the drive. He's always playing with an edge."
Graham was targeted 14 times against the Jaguars, catching 10. His touchdown catch was a simple 1-yard toss that saw him wide open off a play-action pass from Brees. He also had a big 59-yard catch late to help ice the game.
|New Orleans Saints|
|The Saints didn't play perfectly and they actually allowed the Jaguars to stay around longer than they perhaps should have. Still, the Saints' defense did a good job not letting the Jaguars back into the game when they had opportunities. The Saints' offense wasn't as efficient in scoring territory as they usually are, but they moved effectively enough.|
|This grade may be on a bit of a curve, because the Jaguars played better in a few areas than many believed they would. The defense forced two turnovers and held the Saints to two TDs when the game was still in doubt. Offensively, while the Jaguars scored just 10 points, rookie Blaine Gabbert showed signs for a second consecutive week of turning into the franchise QB the Jaguars wanted when they drafted him.|
|By John Oehser|
That's what's special about Graham. He can get deep down the field, something most tight ends can't do.
That ability to make plays down the field only adds to what Saints coach Sean Payton can do in scheming against a defense. Payton is the best play-caller in the NFL, an aggressive coach who rarely backs off, sometimes even when it hurts his own team.
Adding Graham to an already prolific offense is downright scary. Throw in elusive running back Darren Sproles, who had 131 yards of offense, and there's even more options for Brees.
"He can do so many things," Brees said of Sproles. "You just want to get the ball into that guy's hands because he can do some exciting stuff."
The Saints rolled up 503 yards of offense to Jacksonville's 274. They had 30 first downs to 15 for the Jaguars. Even so, the game was in doubt until Graham's 59-yard catch down the right sideline with 2:29 left.
"This is the greatest time I've ever had in the sport," Graham said.
When the Saints decided to release Shockey in February, it meant it was Graham's time. He flashed as a rookie backup, but now it was his chance to do a lot more.
"He [Shockey] told me all summer that this would be my time," Graham said.
Through four games, Graham is second on the team with 24 catches, behind Sproles with 26. His 367 yards is tops among all pass catchers on the Saints and his three touchdowns tie him with receiver Robert Meachem.
Graham said football was always his first love. But he went to a high school that didn't have football, so he just played basketball, which is how he earned his way to Miami.
Now he's making the same adjustment that Gates made. Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, who played basketball at Cal, is another of the tight ends with a hoops background.
The biggest transition is the physical part. Running and catching balls is one thing, but blocking is another.
"You can't stay in the league just catching balls," Graham said. "You have to block."
"I block," he said. "I block. I'm not just some Z-receiver out there who doesn't block."
That's not his main role. His is like the other basketball-playing tight ends: Make plays in the passing game.
"They typically have soft hands, they're great with body position, body control," said Brees, who played with Gates in San Diego before coming to the Saints. "The biggest thing for basketball guy playing in the NFL is the physical nature of the game. You're not just running around catching balls. You're getting whacked at the line of scrimmage, as you're running the route, as you catch it. You pass block and run block. There's a physical nature to it."
Graham said he works on the physical part of it all the time. But let's be honest, he will make his bones in this pass-happy offense catching passes, not knocking down linebackers.
"Gates and Gonzalez kind of opened the door," Graham said. "I'm glad they did."
NFL defenses that have to play the Saints might wish they had left it closed.