No matter how you define his position, New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has a unique skill set that makes him one of the most coveted players in fantasy football
A TIGHT END has to be as stout in pass protection as an offensive tackle, as effective a lead blocker as a fullback and, of course, as good with his hands as a receiver. That's a lot to ask of a player from week to week, let alone snap to snap—the typical grind for the NFL's most versatile position—especially given how much lower his pay is relative to that of players who do just one of those three jobs.
Enter Jimmy Graham. The Saints' fifth-year tight end is one of the NFL's premier playmakers. That he's emerged as such by giving only a third of the effort that's traditionally required of his position is something that could happen only in the NFL, where, increasingly, specialization rules.
Graham doesn't stiff-arm his other duties because he's lazy; he performs one task—and only one—because he's built like a rhino, runs like an impala and has the mitts of a Kodiak bear. That task is to fetch whatever Saints quarterback Drew Brees throws his way. "If I'm man-to-man with a linebacker, well, that's an automatic win, because I can run by him," Graham says. "If I'm one-on-one against a corner, I'm gonna catch it all day, because I'm twice his size."
It's not as if the Saints use him gingerly. A Pro Football Focus analysis of Graham's 774 snaps in 2013 shows him lining up in the traditional tight end spot, outside the tackle, only 33.3% of the time, compared with 43.8% in the slot and 22.7% out wide. Sometimes he draws the mismatch; other times he creates one for another Saint.
Last season Graham led New Orleans in receptions (86), yards (1,215) and touchdowns (16). His production reinforced what fantasy owners already knew: He's not Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning, the kind of player who will capture your league pennant all by himself; Graham is a really good receiver, which is all that fantasy football demands of a tight end.
See him that way, and Graham's recent contract dispute is understandable. When the Saints, in a bid to keep him out of the free-agent market, designated him a franchise player at tight end, Graham appealed on grounds that he should be compensated not as a tight end but as a receiver—a classification that would entail a raise of about $5 million. But this wasn't a cash grab, really. This was a case for evolution. And it took a game-breaker with a business degree to make it.
THE FIRST play that Jimmy Graham executed as a tight end involved a bit of misdirection. On May 15, 2009, midway through Miami's morning commencement ceremony, the four-year star of the Hurricanes' basketball team loped onto the stage in a black cap and a matching gown that fit his 6' 8", 245-pound frame like a spinnaker. As his hoops highlights unspooled on a screen, the P.A. announcer launched into a recap of Graham's rise from foster child and straight-F student to all-ACC scholar and defensive heartbeat of the Canes' hoops squad. Then, just as university president Donna Shalala was about to hand Graham a green leather binder holding his B.A. in marketing and management, the announcer said this:
Although [Graham] graduates today, fans will still have an opportunity to cheer him on. Under NCAA rules he has one year of eligibility remaining in a sport other than basketball. And so Jimmy will be taking his physical play from the hardwood to the gridiron as the tight end for the Hurricanes' football team!
Frank Haith, who coached Graham in basketball for four seasons at Miami, calls him the best post defender he's been around. "Once he learned how to play without using his hands—just with his chest and his back—he was so hard to score on," recalls Haith, now the coach at Tulsa. "He thrived on playing defense. He loved screening. He didn't mind contact."
That aggression is what lured Miami football coach Randy Shannon, who was then the defensive coordinator, to Graham's basketball games during his freshman year, in 2005--06. It was the power forward's catching, not his shooting, that made Shannon come back for more. "When Jimmy caught a basketball, there was really no sound," Shannon recalls. "There wasn't a thwup or a boom. And he didn't miss many passes."
The admiration was mutual. After basketball season every year Graham would watch Miami's spring football practices over a fence. He yearned to get closer. "I wanted to be one of those guys," he says.
Despite having grown up in the North Carolina basketball hotbed that is the Research Triangle, Graham had long aspired to be a two-sport college athlete in the mold of Julius Peppers, who was a star defensive end for UNC and spent two years as a walk-on on the basketball team. As a high school freshman, Graham played defensive end at Eastern Wayne High. Growing up with an absentee father and a mother who placed Graham with various relatives and in foster care, he was adopted at age 14 by Becky Vinson, whom he'd met through a Bible study group. Vinson enrolled him in Charis Prep, a private school without a football team, and Graham focused exclusively on basketball.
He tried to revive his multisport dream at Miami, asking Haith for permission to work out with the football team before his junior and senior seasons. Each time the answer was no. But when the Hurricanes lost to Florida 74--60 in the second round of the NIT in March 2009, Graham's basketball eligibility was exhausted. Nine NBA teams invited him to workouts, and a handful of overseas teams offered him contracts. In between final exams he considered possible basketball agents.
And then the Patriots called.
HAITH DOESN'T get many phone calls from pro football scouts, but he could appreciate why one from New England would inquire about scheduling a campus workout with Graham before the NFL draft. If these kinds of inquiries weren't already a matter of due diligence before the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez pivoted from reserve forward at Cal to a perennial Pro Bowl tight end, they became a matter of professional survival once an undersized power forward out of Kent State named Antonio Gates emerged as the focal point of the Chargers' offense.
But Gonzalez was an All-America tight end at Cal, and Gates was recruited by Nick Saban at Michigan State after being named all-state at the same position in high school; both athletes had played enough football to justify their respective NFL breaks. "[Graham] hasn't played football since the ninth grade," Haith explained to the scout. Would he even know what he was doing out there—especially given the Patriots' interest in him as a tight end, not a pass rusher?
At the tryout Miami freshman quarterback Jacory Harris was happy to run Graham through the Pats' pass-catching drills. "He was like, 'Listen: I want you to get down and run this,' " Graham recalls. "I had no idea what he was talking about. Finally he said, 'Just run 12 yards, turn and face me.' Or, 'Go grab that rebound.' " From that point on Harris translated every gridiron concept into basketball terms. "That's when I was like, All right, I can do that," says Graham.
He doesn't remember much else about that day, aside from the $5,000 bonus that the Patriots offered if he signed on the spot. As an alternative, Shannon made this pitch to Graham: Attend grad school at Miami, spend a season polishing your tight end game with the Canes and then watch NFL teams trip over themselves trying to draft you.
As much as Graham was already leaning toward that option, it took an hourlong chat with Hurricanes great and former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar over a game of catch for Graham to be convinced that a year's worth of seasoning in Coral Gables would make it possible for him to become an NFL playmaker. "When somebody tells you that—'You've never played this sport, but I think you can be a playmaker'—you think the guy's crazy," says Graham.
He met with Kosar for twice-weekly tutoring sessions covering routes and coverages. Every day that summer he submitted to Hurricanes strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey for abuse in the high heat. "I had been in air-conditioning for eight years [playing basketball]," says Graham. "I wanted to make sure everything I was doing was the hardest. I wanted to prove I was one of them." When he bulked up to 260, a 15-pound gain over his basketball weight, no one could say he didn't look the part.
Miami offensive coordinator Mark Whipple drafted a package of 20 plays for his new receiver, who had never run a single route in a game. Whipple made a point of featuring Graham in short-field situations, for which raw technique and limited football literacy would be less of an issue. "Just learning the idiosyncrasies of when to get in a stance, how to get off the line of scrimmage, who's the Sam linebacker—all that kind of stuff he struggled with at first," tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio says. "But you could tell right away that he was going to learn."
In games Whipple saved Graham for the red zone. In his first five outings Graham had only three catches, but each resulted in a touchdown. In the regular-season finale, against Duke, he caught five passes for 73 yards. Five months later, despite having made only 17 career catches, Graham was picked by the Saints in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft. Many observers thought the team had made a huge mistake. Graham's detractors said he wasn't football-tough or worth the long-term investment. The Saints, coming off of a triumph in Super Bowl XLIV, must have missed all that while they were celebrating.
NEW ORLEANS didn't need him to produce right away. Its offense, which set a franchise record by scoring 510 points in 2009, required only a serviceable tight end. If Graham could do a fair impression of Jeremy Shockey—another ex-Cane, who had just caught 48 balls for 569 yards and three touchdowns—so much the better.
And Graham had a willing tutor in Brees. After a few weeks of throwing the route tree in training camp, Brees pulled him aside. Seven years before in San Diego, the QB explained, he was investing exactly this kind of time in Antonio Gates, who was starting out his NFL career. Gates, Brees told Graham, was more raw. The message: Keep working, keep believing, and you'll be one of the best. "To have your quarterback telling you that as a rookie," says Graham, "is very, very encouraging."
That first season Graham split time with Shockey and mostly kept pace, with 31 catches, 356 yards and five touchdowns (to Shockey's 41, 408 and three). A year later, when Shockey left for Carolina in free agency, Graham exploded for 99 catches (tied for fourth most all time by a tight end), 1,310 yards (second-most) and 11 touchdowns. So much for those years of development that critics said Graham would need.
These days Graham is a matchup nightmare. With no legal way to stop him, defenders have resorted to holding his arms, falling down in front of him, even wrestling him to the ground by his face mask. ("I'll watch film and see it in all the big moments, like third down," Graham says. "It just comes with the territory, I guess.") That's essentially how the Seahawks played him in the divisional round of the playoffs last January.
The tone was set before the game started, when Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin cut off Graham, whose warmup routine had drifted into the Seahawks' half of CenturyLink Field, and punted away the football with which the tight end was practicing. That touched off an expletive-laden shouting match between Graham and a collection of Seattle defenders that required the two parties to be separated. Then, in the game, Graham was given no space; targeted six times, he caught just one pass—on the game's final possession—in a 23--15 Saints loss. Afterward Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett called Graham the NFL's "most overrated player."
If pro football were more like basketball or even fantasy football, in which a player's position is secondary to his production, Graham probably wouldn't have raised the issue of his job title. Still, it's a good thing he did. In July, shortly after his grievance was rejected by a league arbitrator in part because "physical attributes and skill sets" are more important to defining a position than the alignment, the Saints re-signed Graham to a four-year, $40 million deal, more than half of which is guaranteed.
The new deal not only gives Graham a bigger annual salary than that of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, formerly the highest-paid tight end, but it also puts Graham in the same tax bracket as wideouts such as the Bears' Brandon Marshall ($40 million for four years) and the Bucs' Vincent Jackson ($55 million for five years). More important, Graham's contract will serve as a reference point for players such as the Browns' Jordan Cameron, the 49ers' Vernon Davis and the Broncos' Julius Thomas.
Until then, Graham will continue advocating the tight end cause through his play. With the Saints' loss of running back Darren Sproles (who was shipped to Philadelphia in a predraft trade), Graham figures to get even more attention from his quarterback—and from defenses. Instead of renaming his position, he'll have to settle for redefining it all over again.
"When Jimmy caught a basketball, there was really no sound," Shannon recalls. "There wasn't a thwup or a boom. And he didn't miss many passes."
With no legal way to stop Graham, defenders have resorted to holding his arms, falling down in front of him, even wrestling him to the ground by his face mask.
Photograph by Tom DiPace
AUTOMATIC Graham's size and speed give him a mismatch—and a reception—on almost every pass thrown his way; he had only six drops in 2013.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CONSTANT CONTACT Graham, who blocked 104 shots as a Hurricane, loves to get physical on the field as much as he did on the hardwood.
G. ANDREW BOYD/NOLA.COM/THE TIMES-PICAYUNE/LANDOV
[See caption above]
RON ANTONELLI/GETTY IMAGES
INVESTMENT STRATEGY Brees (9) encouraged Graham from the start, and it has paid off with 41 TDs to date.