RENTON—About midway through Jimmy Graham’s rookie NFL season in 2010, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees knew they had something in the unrefined tight end.
Graham had done little the opening seven weeks, which wasn’t surprising because he only played one season of college football at Miami, spending most of his time on the basketball court.
At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds his pose-worthy muscular frame was enticing despite his meager football résumé. The hand-eye coordination and leaping ability he developed from basketball gave the Saints enough belief in his potential that they made Graham a third-round pick.
In his first eight games, Graham had eight catches. He had 23 in his next eight games, including his first NFL touchdown in Week 8.
“That’s when you noticed that this guy could do some things,” Brees said.
The Seahawks will be paying particular attention to Graham on Monday night when the Saints come to Seattle.
After the humdrum start to his career, Graham has caught 99, 85 and, this year, 65 passes, in each respective season. He has 36 career touchdowns and has been targeted 99 times this year by Brees.
“It takes everything that we have to slow a guy down like this,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
The Saints will move Graham often. He motions out wide, lines up in the slot, and comes from the traditional tight end alignment.
His prowess stems from his staggering blend of size and mobility. Separation from a defender is not a prerequisite for
Brees to throw to Graham. The only requirement is for Graham to be on the field.
“(Brees) knows that he can throw the ball at him, with coverage all over him and he can still make plays,” Carroll said. “He really is a fast guy, as well. They totally know how to use his talents and (Brees) understands it as well. That’s the most important part; he can get the ball to him. So we have to cover him in multiple ways.”
The New England Patriots used a specific tact in Week 6 to hold Graham to zero receptions for the first time in almost three years.
They put cornerback Aqib Talib up on the line of scrimmage to jam Graham, often leaving Talib by himself despite a 5-inch height disadvantage and 60-pound weight deficit.
Talib shoved Graham at the line, then often afterward, too. He pushed, pressed, grabbed and sometimes held.
That approach is an option for the Seahawks.
“The way he just stood there for his challenge, he didn’t back off, he didn’t soft shoe; he just stood there and fought with him the whole game,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said of Talib. “I think you can take some away from that, but I think schematically we’re a totally different defense so we’ll play them totally different. We try not to tailor our whole defense towards one person.”
The Seahawks have a strong belief in their base defense, which means Graham should often be faced by strong safety Kam Chancellor.
Chancellor is bigger, badder and more ornery than Talib. At 232 pounds, he has the might to push back at Graham.
“Big tight end, big safety,” Chancellor said. “It’s going to be a good matchup.”
Graham is the torch-bearer now for the basketball player turned Pro Bowl tight end.
Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez preceded San Diego’s Antonio Gates who preceded Graham. Gonzalez played basketball at Cal and Gates played at Kent State.
Gates did not play college football. He was open-wound raw when he showed up at Chargers camp in 2003.
“Watching him put his hand in the dirt it looked like he had no clue,” said Brees, who was the San Diego quarterback at the time. “But, he had an athletic gift and a feel for the game where when he turned around in the middle of the field it was like he was posting somebody up.
“It took Gates about five to six months before you were like, OK this guy is starting to figure it out. With Jimmy, you saw the athletic ability, you saw some of those natural gifts and instincts (right away).”
Gonzalez is the patriarch of the basketball tight end prototype. This is his 17th season in the league, and he’s a 13-time Pro Bowl selection.
Chancellor shadowed Gonzalez in the Seahawks’ Week 10 win in Atlanta, restricting him to three catches for 29 yards.
Graham – whom Carroll says is a blend of Gonzalez and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis – has superior athleticism to Gonzalez. Yet, Chancellor feels he’s missing a key ingredient.
“I wouldn’t say he has hands like Gonzalez,” Chancellor said. “(Gonzalez) catches like 80, 85 percent of what’s in his area. I wouldn’t put (Graham’s) hands up there with Gonzalez’s, but he has good hands also.”
Despite that, Graham has plenty to keep the Seahawks occupied.
“We’ll try to slow him down the best we can and keep him from controlling the game,” Carroll said.