Jimmy Graham is a rare football specimen.
Here he is, a 6'7" tight end with a 4.5 40-yard dash time, who can outmuscle defenders with his 265-pound frame and outjump cornerbacks due to his 38.5-inch vertical. All of that is a rare combination of natural talent, which gives Graham an edge when matched up against slower linebackers and undersized defensive backs.
His stats in 2012 dropped off from where he was in 2011, but that can be attributed to wrist and ankle injuries that affected his performance a season ago. After catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, Graham finished 2012 with 85 receptions, 982 yards and nine touchdowns. Graham also had 15 drops, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the worst in the NFL in 2012.
Graham has reminded a lot of experts and analysts of Tony Gonzalez, the veteran Atlanta Falcons tight end who became a household name at the position for many years with the Kansas City Chiefs. With Gonzalez aging, and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's health hampering him (not to mention the exodus the Patriots have seen on offense), there's a line of thinking that this could be Graham's year to establish himself as the best at the position for the 2013 season.
If Graham can stay on the field and avoid injury, it's quite possible that he will be back to where he was when he was having his way with opposing defenses. In 2012, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him as the 10th tight end in the NFL based on production. A year prior in 2011, he ranked fourth among NFL tight ends in the passing game. He can affect the game in so many ways as a matchup nightmare.
The Saints have done a good job in maximizing Graham's versatility and skill set. He can line up on the line of scrimmage as a traditional tight end or as a slot receiver. Rarely does he split out wide, though he is capable of doing so.
For a quarterback as great as Drew Brees, Graham makes his job much easier. If Graham has a one-on-one battle, Brees has a little leeway to work with, seeing that Graham can go up and win most of these battles.
Here are some examples of what makes Graham so tough to defend.
Nov. 11, 2012: Atlanta vs. New Orleans, Second Quarter, 13:39
The Saints placed Graham in the left slot, with two receivers split on the outside with him. With the Falcons in a nickel personnel, the goal here is to get a smaller cornerback to match up against Graham.
After the snap, Falcons nickel back Robert McClain comes on a blitz, with Graham seeing the defense in a zone. The Falcons are wary of Graham getting behind them, opting to keep the big tight end in front. Even so, it doesn’t matter
Graham is able to find a spot in between Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent, cornerback Dunta Robinson and safety Thomas DeCoud. Brees hit Graham with a perfect pass.
DeCoud tried to bring Graham down before he reached the end zone but to no avail. Graham is too strong for a free safety—one who's listed at 192 pounds—to tackle him by himself.
Nov. 11, 2012: Atlanta vs. New Orleans, Second Quarter, 0:40
The Saints are at the 15-yard line and threatening to score with under a minute left in the first half. Graham lined up as a tight end, next to right tackle Charles Brown.
Graham broke off the line with Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas picking him up in coverage. Nicholas, giving up about 30 pounds to Graham at 236 pounds, tries to outmuscle Graham with a jam. It's unsuccessful as Graham broke out of it and got past the five-yard barrier defenders are allowed to make contact in.
Graham, acting like a wide receiver, gave Nicholas a quick cut, which caused the linebacker’s footing to slip. This left Graham wide open in the seam and ready for a potential touchdown.
By separating from Nicholas, Graham was able to create a space for himself on his own, despite the matchup man coverage.
With just over three yards to the end zone, Graham had strong safety William Moore to beat. Moore wrapped his arms around Graham’s waist but was unsuccessful in bringing him down. Graham powered his way into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
You can’t put a cornerback on Graham because he’ll outleap them. You can’t put a linebacker on Graham because he’ll outrun them. And when a safety tries to prevent him from scoring in a last-ditch effort, Graham is able to power through anyway.
It makes you wonder what Graham’s 2012 season would have been like if he didn’t injure his wrist and ankle. After all, his 982 yards were second-best among tight ends in the NFL, and his nine touchdowns were tied for second.
When Graham, along with Gronkowski, are healthy, they’re almost impossible to stop. And when teams decide to spend most of the defense’s attention in stopping these tight ends, it only opens up other aspects of the game.
Defenses, especially those in the NFC South, will certainly try their best to contain Graham this season. But that’s much easier said than done.