How the New Orleans Saints Are Setting Up Jimmy Graham for a Historic Season

Murf BaldwinContributor IOctober 8, 2013

Oct 6, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) makes a catch against Chicago Bears middle linebacker D.J. Williams (58) and cornerback Isaiah Frey (31)  during the second half at Soldier Field. The Saints beat the Bears 26-18. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Some players are just born to be great.

In a little over three seasons, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has gone from a virtual unknown to a serious MVP candidate. Through five games, Graham has 37 receptions for 593 yards and six touchdowns. 

As a surprise third-round pick of the 2010 draft, scouts had one of the smallest sample sizes to draw from regarding Graham's draft prognostication. In retrospect, in a draft that featured quarterback Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams) and Ndamukong Suh (Detroit Lions), it can be argued that Graham should've been the No. 1 overall selection.

At 6'7", 265 pounds, Graham is an unparalleled blend of size, height, agility and speed. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (6'6", 265 lbs) is close but lacks Graham's athleticism

Both Graham and Gronkowski (second round) were selected in the same draft. Gronkowski generated more of a buzz due to playing two seasons of college ball (University of Arizona), although he missed his final season (junior year) because of a back injury.

Graham had one season of college football after playing four seasons of basketball for the University of Miami. 

As a huge fan of college sports, I originally knew of Jimmy Graham as an NBA hopeful. He played four seasons for the University of Miami as a power forward. As a hoops player, Graham's talent was minuscule. He was extremely physical and would display that at all costs. I actually didn't care for Graham as he was overly physical to my team, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

He was known to leave the game with more fouls than points. He reminded me of the college version of Dennis Rodman (minus the skill).

After four years (120 games), Graham's average of 4.2 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game cemented the fact that he wasn't going to make it professionally. After Graham exhausted his basketball eligibility, he applied for graduate school. This allowed him one extra year in another sport. 

This is an excerpt from an earlier piece I did on Graham and fellow Saints tight end Ben Watson. Graham's decision to play football was by far his best decision. He may have made the NBA as an undrafted free agent, but he would've more than likely been relegated to the NBA's developmental league.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Tight end Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints dunks the ball over the goal post after scoring a 27-yard touchdown in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 30, 2013
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

As a football player, he seems destined for the Hall of Fame.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is the gold standard for tight ends currently. His ability to move all around the field and create matchups is uncanny. His route running, hands and knack for body positioning make him all but indefensible. 

When it's all said and done, I wholeheartedly believe Graham will exceed the production of Gonzalez while continuing to revolutionize the position of tight end.

Playing for an offensive genius (for the foreseeable future) like coach Sean Payton is going to be what separates Graham from his peers. Payton's ability to create not only one-on-one matchups, but also favorable matchups, is second-to-none in the NFL.

Via NFL Rewind
Via NFL Rewind

Here we see Graham from a normal in-line tight end position. The Miami Dolphins are using one of their corners, Jamar Taylor (5'10", 195 lbs), to defend Graham in man coverage. For Graham, it's like taking candy from baby.

When you match up corners with Graham, you give up a substantial amount of size, even though you might gain better coverage ability. Taylor is playing this about as perfect as you can. He's staying in Graham's hip pocket, and he turns to locate the ball when Graham does.

This is where physics comes into play. With a perfectly thrown pass, there's no way Taylor can compete with Graham from a physicality standpoint. His jumping ability would be amazing for a man half his size. 

The Seattle Seahawks have a couple of tall corners in Brandon Browner (6'4", 221 lbs) and Richard Sherman (6'3", 195 lbs). But Graham is significantly heavier than these guys while being as fast, if not faster, than both.

Here is where I believe Graham is most effective, as a slot receiver. Playing him out in space usually ensures a battle with a defensive back. Miami safety Chris Clemons (6'1", 214 lbs) is the unlucky participant in this reel.

There aren't too many safeties in the NFL with the prerequisite coverage skills it takes to defend Graham. Most lack the agility to keep up, although they are bigger in size.

Right away, Graham eats up the cushion. Clemons' feet are too wide for him to turn and run with Graham on this seam route. This would indicate that Clemons doesn't respect Graham's speed. Graham is fast by normal standards, but when he gets to open up his stride, he becomes even faster.

When it comes to speed, players with legs the length of Graham's shouldn't be measured over 40 yards. Take the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt. At 6'5", he's notoriously one of the slowest-starting sprinters on the circuit. Usually after 40 yards he's just warming up. The same can be said about Graham.

Graham blows by Clemons like he's standing still on his way to an explosive touchdown. I don't see any safety in the league who poses a threat for Graham in a one-on-one situation.

If I were a defensive coordinator, I'd put a linebacker with great coverage skills on Graham. The first player who comes to mind is the San Francisco 49ersPatrick Willis. I believe he could possibly slow down Graham one-on-one. At 6'1", 240 pounds, running a 4.51 40-yard dash, according to ESPN, Willis has the size, agility and speed to compete with Graham.

But even I'm not sure if he could hold Graham under 100 yards. The Dolphins felt they had a good matchup for Graham in linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, a good cover 'backer in his own right, but he was quickly exposed as a mismatch.

As much as Graham's size separates him from the pack, his ever-improving route-running ability is what's going to help him sustain his elite status. Graham does a great job of not tipping his routes by having all of them look the same initially.

This is where linebackers will have trouble competing. When you have an athletic monstrosity like Graham executing in a proficient manner, it turns a difficult task into an impossible one.

As good as Ellerbe is in coverage, he simply doesn't have the agility or coverage prowess to compete with Graham.

Coach Payton does a wonderful job of moving Graham all over the formation, which dictates matchups. Graham will often motion from the slot into the Z- or X-receiver spot. He's adept at catching screens and breaking tackles. His intermediate game is impeccable, and we already know about his deep-ball prowess.

The addition of Watson has been beneficial because his presence often gets Graham a breather on run downs. Watson is one of the better blocking tight ends in the league; as for Graham...not so much.

A fresh Graham spells curtains for opposing defenses. And when New Orleans goes to its "12 personnel" package, the results can be damaging.

When a defense is looking at a personnel grouping such as this one, it would normally scream a run is coming. But with Graham or Watson (No. 82) motioning out wide, it forces the defense's base personnel to defend space-beating plays. 

Jimmy Graham is simply the best tight end in the league. His size, speed, agility and overall receiver acumen are virtually peerless. Playing for the best offensive mind in the business, along with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, has rapidly sped up Graham's development. 

To think that Graham is only in the beginning of his fifth consecutive year of playing football—and is already this dominant—should send shivers down the spines of opposing teams' coordinators.

Good luck thinking of ways to stop this monster.

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