New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is on track to be ready for the start of the 2014 NFL regular season. Jimmy Graham, who lost his grievance to be contractually regarded as a wide receiver, is also on track to be ready for the start of the season after agreeing to a new deal with the New Orleans Saints.
These two mammoths are likely to compete for the mantle of "NFL's Best Tight End" this year.
Graham has been an outstanding player for a while now, but he really opened up the debate between he and Gronkowski last year. While Gronkowski missed most of 2013 due to injury, Graham's 16 touchdown receptions almost equaled the record for tight ends (17) that Gronk set in 2011.
The Saints star finished the year with 88 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 16 regular-season games. In just seven regular-season games, Gronkowski compiled 39 receptions for 592 yards and four touchdowns.
Gronkowski's numbers project to 89 receptions for 1,353 yards and nine touchdowns over a full 16-game season. While the projections suggest that Graham would have had significantly more touchdowns, the Patriots tight end's history suggests that he wouldn't have been held to fewer than 10 scores.
Entering the 2013 season, Gronkowski had 38 career touchdowns in three seasons. Even when he played in only 11 games in 2012, he still finished the year with 11 scores. Graham, on the other hand, had exceeded nine touchdowns only once in the three seasons before 2013.
If the NFL had a skills competition designed for pass-catchers, Gronkowski and Graham would likely compete with Calvin Johnson in any jump-ball contest. All three players have good size with the strength and ball skills to tower over the majority of defensive backs. Graham in particular excels at using his 6'7" frame.
Graham's ability to post up defenders in the end zone gives Drew Brees an easy target toward whom he can simply loft the ball, but Graham also has the ability to run deep routes and go up and get the ball downfield.
What Graham does for the Saints offense in this regard is massively important.
Graham does have some weaknesses, such as not being an overly flexible athlete when it comes to adjusting to passes below his shoulders. However, he is so good at grabbing the ball like a basketball center pulls down a rebound that his limitations elsewhere are almost irrelevant.
Irrelevant until you compare him to Gronkowski, at least.
Graham is probably superior to Gronkowski in jump-ball situations, but not significantly so. However, Gronkowski's ability to adjust to a wider variety of throws distinguishes him from Graham. When throwing to Gronkowski, Tom Brady doesn't need to be accurate. He just needs to put the ball in the general area of his tight end.
Some images of proof are below:
Having as big of a body as Gronkowski has normally comes with the limitations of being a slower, more rigid receiver. Graham can look that way on certain catch attempts, but Gronkowski does not. He is a very flexible athlete who can easily catch the ball at various points below his waist.
Also, he normally doesn't wait for the ball to arrive into his chest; rather, he attacks the ball at the earliest possible point.
One thing that stands out with Gronkowski is how his feet and hands work together. Even when making adjustments that should disrupt his forward momentum, he is often able to catch the ball and keep his feet moving forward.
This is the kind of trait that is associated with smaller slot receivers.
Neither Graham nor Gronkowski are impressive route-runners; they're both way too big and like to push off a bit too much. Each often gets open by bullying smaller defenders or trying to outrun bigger, less athletic safeties and linebackers.
Because each player is so physically gifted, neither needs to be a great route-runner to create mismatches.
Similar to how his flexibility affords him a more impressive catch radius, Gronkowski's fluidity allows him to be slightly more effective in running his patterns. Graham is primarily a deep threat who runs very simple routes underneath and to the intermediate level.
Even though the Saints clearly need the mismatches Graham creates to maximize their offense, Graham also needs Sean Payton.
Payton is brilliant at using players to their strengths and masking their weaknesses. He has Brees regularly target Graham after play-action on routes designed to get the tight end open with minimal effort on his part. Payton also didn't often ask him to run routes that called for multiple cuts, hesitation or for him to move laterally.
The highlight of Graham's route tree is an out-and-up move he uses to create separation downfield. He is at his best when he doesn't have to turn his shoulders toward either sideline.
Graham can be shifty and shows very good footwork, but he carries too much bulk to control his body through demanding routes or change direction in a hurry.
On the other hand, Gronkowski was asked to run a slightly more varied route tree for the Patriots. He is better at running out routes and turning in different ways without losing control of his body or the flight of the ball because of his more fluid athleticism and slightly better feet.
Gronkowski is very difficult to cover on seam routes and crossing routes. His ability to accelerate and create separation is as impressive as the size he uses to tower over them.
Both tight ends stood out with their ability to get off the line of scrimmage. Because they have short-area quickness and a size advantage that they deploy from a standing start, they are never caught up at the line and can be dominant on slant routes when they only need to get inside positioning on their opponent.
Contested catches are an inevitable aspect of being an NFL receiver, and no more so than for tight ends. For a tight end such as Jimmy Graham, someone who doesn't excel at creating separation, making grabs in traffic becomes even more important.
There are a couple of things to note with Graham and contested catches.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Graham caught 90 passes last year on 145 targets. By PFF measurements, 96 of his targets were catchable, giving him a 62.1 percent catch ratio. When I went through his targets, I found that 116 of his total targets were catchable.
(Part of the discrepancy between the two numbers may come from plays erased by penalty. The rest are by contrasting definitions.)
In evaluating Graham, I noticed that, in contested-reception opportunities, he leaves too many plays on the field. Even though he dominates defensive backs in jump-ball situations, he appears much less aggressive and confident when asked to work the middle of the field as a possession receiver.
He doesn't take on contact or catch the ball in traffic as easily as some other tight ends. There were even times when he appeared to pull up and bypass making a catch because of the presence of an oncoming defensive back.
A defensive back who was much smaller than he.
It's apparent that Graham still doesn't relish all the aspects of being a football player. On the chart below, the green circles are receptions, the orange circles are contested-catch situations where Graham failed to make the reception and the red circle is his lone wide-open drop of the season.
The chart shows that Graham is a vitally important part of what the Saints want to do on offense, but when you're comparing him to other dominant receiving options, you can't discount the plays that he leaves on the field.
Playing through injury must be taken into account, but the majority of these plays were more reflective of his hesitation against contact and his tendency to wait for the ball to come to him. Graham had 1,215 receiving yards last year, a respectable but not astonishing total.
He was able to keep his total that high because of the high number of times he was targeted combined with a fine 14.1 yards-per-catch average.
In comparison, Gronkowski's catch chart highlights some of the focus issues he had last season. Gronkowski obviously had much fewer targets than Graham because he played in fewer games, but he had more wide open drops with three. He failed to win in only six contested-catch situations, though.
A part of Gronkowski's success in relation to Graham is his greater athleticism. Being more flexible and more fluid allows him to adjust to the ball more easily—yet the biggest advantage Gronkowski has is that he simply relishes the contact from which Graham appears to shy away.
Considering their respective injury histories, that may not be as big of a knock against Graham as it seems.
Both Graham and Gronkowski are effective with the ball in their hands.
Neither player is exceptionally elusive, though. When you're 6'6" and over 260 pounds, your skills as an open-field runner are probably limited. Rather, Graham and Gronkowski use their size and power when they have the ball in their hands to swat defenders away.
That ability to fend off defenders or drag them along complements the impressive speed that both players boast.
When Gronkowski is on the field for the Patriots, the offense is essentially playing with six offensive linemen. Not only is he a massive body who can move comfortably in space, he also plays with excellent body control and leverage. He is not just a willing blocker, he relishes the opportunity to clear out running lanes.
This is one of the most important aspects of Gronkowski's skill set to separate him from other tight ends.
When you're a dominant receiver, you threaten the secondary on every passing play. When you're a dominant blocker, you can make key blocks both on running plays and occasionally when your offense throws the ball. When you're both, it completely changes what the offense can do to the defense and how the defense game-plans against you.
Any quarterback playing with Gronkowski on the field is always going to have options at the line of scrimmage. While most quarterbacks in the league are allowed to change plays at the line, not every quarterback always has a good option. Because Gronkowski can be a key piece of any kind of play, Brady always has a good option when he is on the field.
Graham doesn't afford the Saints that same luxury.
In spite of his massive frame, Graham is limited as a blocker. He is tentative and reluctantly initiates contact. He doesn't get low and use his feet to drive through defenders. Instead, he stands upright and attempts to wall them off like most wide receivers do.
Effort on Graham's part appears to be a concern also, as he doesn't fight for position and work to sustain blocks even against smaller linebackers and defensive backs. As much as Graham is a mismatch nightmare for opposing team's coverages, he doesn't dictate the Saints' play-calling the way Gronkowski does.
Gronkowski played only 390 snaps last season, but acted as a run blocker on 132 snaps. To put that in perspective, Graham acted as a run-blocker on 210 of his 879 snaps when you include the postseason.
The NFL and the Saints won their case against Graham during the offseason by convincing an arbitrator that where Graham lined up determined the position he played. If the arbitrator had assessed his skill set, effectiveness and his usage rather than solely where he lined up, then the Saints "tight end" would have had more leverage in contract negotiations.
Graham is officially a tight end, but in practical terms he's an oversized slot receiver who happens to line up tight to the formation on a regular basis.
When we enter the hypothetical world of unblemished health for both players, Gronkowski is the better tight end. It's not even a close contest. Graham may be the clear second-best tight end in the NFL, but he's not close to a healthy Gronkowski.
That hypothetical world isn't the one we live in, though.
In the real world, choosing between Gronkowski and Graham is all about durability versus consistency.
Gronkowski will be labeled as injury prone—a label that is both fair and unfair. It's fair because injury prone is a label that is given to people who have suffered repeated injuries, but it's unfair because those injuries don't necessarily suggest he will be injured again.
Matthew Stafford is a great example of how the injury-prone label should only be used to look backwards rather than forwards. Stafford missed 19 of his first 32 games in the NFL because of different injuries. Since then, he has started every single game the Detroit Lions have played over the last three seasons.
When you include injuries, the choice would seemingly be Graham.
However, we shouldn't simply pick Graham because of fear. We must also consider the value and consistency of Gronkowski. Graham wastes a lot of opportunities that Gronkowski doesn't. The Patriot TE is significantly more consistent than his Saint counterpart and, in turn, makes a greater impact.
By suggesting Graham is better than Gronkowski because of health, you are limiting yourself to arguing on behalf of the second-best player at the position.
Another aspect of this that must be considered is age. Gronkowski is 25 years of age and he won't turn 26 until roughly midway through the 2015 calendar year. Graham, on the other hand, is likely nearing the end of his prime, as he will be 28 years old before the end of this season.
Graham can't afford to physically slow down. Comparisons to Tony Gonzalez will be inevitable, but Gonzalez was a much more efficient receiver.