Jimmy Graham had his breakout season in only his second year playing in the NFL. Graham led the New Orleans Saints in receptions (99), receiving yards (1,310), and touchdowns (11) this past season. In addition, Graham will be representing the Saints this Sunday in Hawaii at the 2012 Pro Bowl, his first Pro Bowl selection. Few players have been able to take such a giant leap in only their second season, but Graham is a special player. The NFL game is becoming a predominantly pass first game and this system suits a player like Graham.
It also helps a lot that Graham has such a great quarterback in Drew Brees to get him the ball. Graham does just about everything a good tight end does, but what makes him so great is that he is probably the most athletic at his position. Graham is the evolution of the tight end; standing at 6’7″ and 265 pounds he is a force to be reckoned with. What makes Graham so dangerous is that he is so much taller than defenders and he can jump higher than most of those defenders can. Furthermore, he is a new breed of tight ends that has the ability to almost out run some of the corners and safeties. When you couple his height and strength with his speed he is virtually unstoppable.
I think a big reason why Graham is so good is because he has a basketball background. Graham, like other former basketball players, knew that it would be very difficult to make it to the NBA so when he played his lone season of football at the University of Miami he decided that the NFL was a better route. Graham was a hot prospect and the Saints were fortunate enough to get him; Graham’s basketball skills are translating nicely to the football field. However, his skills go far beyond him dunking the football on the goal post, which I love seeing by the way.
In basketball, players run and they run a lot, so Graham already had great conditioning when he came to the NFL. Also, in basketball they teach you a lot about ball security and since coming into the NFL Graham has only had 2 fumbles. In the NFL combine Graham recorded a 38.5 inch vertical, that is very impressive for a guy who is 6’7″, and basketball players probably jump the highest out of any other athletes. Graham’s jumping ability coupled with his height makes great catches and gains lots of yards. Graham is so versatile that he can set up wide or in the slot which makes it very difficult for defenders to keep track of him. Graham’s basketball skills have helped him become arguably the greatest tight end in the NFL right now, but his biggest skill that he learned from basketball would have to be his spacing.
Like football, basketball is all about spacing and maybe more so since a basketball court is only a fraction of the size of a football field. Graham had to be able to position himself on the basketball court in order to get open and make a shot. The same concept applies in football, Graham has to position himself down the field so he can get open and make a reception. Furthermore, as a big man in basketball, Graham had to be able to box-out and establish position so he would be able to get some rebounds. How does this translate to football? When the Saints are in the red zone I know Brees is looking for Graham because he is “boxing-out” in the end zone and creating enough space to catch a touchdown pass.
There is a new breed of tight ends emerging in the NFL and Graham is at the top of the list. With breakout stars like Graham, NFL scouts might want to start scouting other basketball players in hopes of finding the next Jimmy Graham.