Prior to the 2011 season, only 18 times in the history of the NFL has a tight end surpassed the 1,100-yard receiving mark, and four of those guys have done it multiple times. Tony Gonzalez leads the way with three 1,100-yard-plus seasons. Kellen Winslow has two, as do Todd Christiansen and Antonio Gates. In all, 13 players have accomplished the feat.
But no tight end had ever eclipsed the 1,300-yard receiving mark. Not until two guys—Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham—did it in 2011.
Gronkowski set a new record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,327. Graham was right behind him with 1,310. And each joined a list of 12 tight ends to have caught more than 10 touchdown passes in a season.
Graham tallied his 11 scores and 1,310 yards on 99 receptions last season. Only two tight ends in the history of the NFL have caught more passes in a season, and Graham finished just three catches shy of the record 102 receptions from Gonzalez.
As Graham will turn 26 this year, it would seem that he will have many more years of setting the bar for the way tight ends excel in the NFL. But what made Graham so good in 2011?
First, examine Graham’s intangibles.
Not only is Graham 6’6” and a stout 260 pounds, he comes from a basketball background—he played collegiately at Miami—and has tons of athleticism. Posting up on the hardwood has translated very well for Graham in the NFL, as he regularly goes up in traffic for balls. That toughness of banging on the boards gives Graham an edge in the middle of the football field.
Graham also has incredible agility and a top-notch vertical leap. Not to mention, Graham displays 4.56 speed in the 40-yard dash. When a huge target has great hands, is bigger, faster and stronger than everyone else and has athleticism to burn, it seems unfair for the defense.
Outside of his size and agility, Graham really does have a knack running routes—and he has great hands.
Forget the fact that his frame allows him to track down balls that normally would be uncatchable; when Graham runs a route, he does so with precision and impeccable timing. It takes a lot to be in exactly the right place at the right time, but Graham has worked out a system with quarterback Drew Brees and is rarely missed when targeted.
Speaking of routes, no tight end in football last season was targeted more that Graham with 21 passes of 20 yards or more thrown his way. He caught 13 of them—also to lead the NFL—and didn’t drop one.
Brees will often think of Graham not just as a way to move the chains, but as a deep-threat weapon. With a success rate like Graham enjoyed on deep balls, why not?
Moving into the 2012 season, can Graham duplicate his success from a year ago?
The 2011 season was Graham’s first as a starter and the first time he’d seen any sort of relative success. There’s no track record of this kind of statistical output. But there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat.
The biggest factor to Graham’s success—and a factor he doesn’t directly control—is his quarterback, Brees.
The Saints locked up Brees long-term on July 15, making sure that Brees to Graham would be a connection for the future. And that’s a fantastic first step in making sure Graham brings it again in 2012.
Brees is one of the most, if not the most prolific passer in the NFL. He’s running a very pass-happy, sophisticated offense that only he could master. Now that Brees is back, he and Graham can build on the relationship that blossomed in 2011.
Graham also has some interesting offseason training methods.
During most of the offseason, Graham works out in hot and humid South Florida with former Miami Hurricanes in weather that seems very similar to that on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. But Graham also thinks outside the box with a trip to Steamboat Springs, Colo. every year.
But when he feels like he is at his peak in Miami, he comes to Steamboat for the altitude training. He spends two or three weeks here running routes, lifting weights, hiking and mountain biking. He also has worked with members of the Steamboat Springs High School football team.
“The week before (training) camp, I make sure I’m in Steamboat,” he said. “It’s to get those extra red blood cells. I can tell a big difference. Camp in the NFL — what you do in the offseason helps you survive camp.”
It’s extra, new-tech thinking like this that allows athletes to reach new levels of achievement, and Graham sure did that last season.
Graham has everything around him to make sure 2011 wasn’t a fluke season. Not only does the almost-27-year-old tight end have every physical tool necessary, he’s got a supporting cast in the New Orleans Saints and Brees that’s second to none on offense, and he has a work ethic that will drive him to succeed moving forward.
Graham’s no flash in the pan—he will remain at or near the top of the NFL’s statistical leader board among tight ends. Don’t expect a dropoff any time soon.