Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham sees Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski as the measuring stick for his position.
Beginning his career with the New Orleans Saints in 2010, Graham burst onto the scene in his second season when he earned second-team All-Pro honors.
Graham recently revealed that at that time he was driven by a desire to be just as good as Gronkowski.
"I’ve never told anybody this. My first four years in the league, I actually had Gronk’s jersey hanging in my bedroom," Graham told ESPN. "I didn’t have a TV hanging in my room, I had Gronk’s jersey hanging in my room. Literally it was the only item I had hanging in my house. So every morning I had to wake up and I knew that I needed to get to work."
During his second season in 2011, Graham set the single-season record for receiving yards for a tight end with 1,310 in the last week of the season. But he only held the record for a few minutes as Gronkowski, who played for the New England Patriots at the time, came off the bench in his Week 17 game to move ahead of Graham with 1,327.
"I would say anybody and everybody needs some kind of a rivalry at some point, at least mentally to push yourself even more," Graham said. "And you know Gronk has always been that for me."
Graham was a favorite target of former Saints quarterback Drew Brees, leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2013. He earned three Pro Bowl selections while playing for New Orleans before being traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2015.
In three seasons in Seattle he set franchise records for the most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Despite his success with the Seahawks, Graham wonders what could have been if he stayed with the Saints for longer than five seasons. Seeing Gronkowski's continued success with quarterback Tom Brady also amplified those feelings.
"I don’t think anybody really benefitted from the trade,” Graham said. “You got a guy like Gronk who’s been with his quarterback his entire career in the same offense, the same scheme. So for me, it’s always one of those things where thinking about what could’ve been or what should’ve been with Drew is kind of the most disappointing."