When New Orleans’ exceptional tight end approaches a crossbar during a football game, it’s for the purpose of taking a few steps, exploding off the turf and dunking a football over it. And he only dunks after touchdowns (his 360-degree flush in the season opener against the Falcons was particularly impressive). So it’s all in jubilation, as a result of production.
Now, don’t mistake – the corners of the mouth curl upward for the 6-foot-7, former University of Miami (Fla.) power forward (4.2 points, 4.2 rebounds per game in 120 of them) when mention is made that now, the New Orleans Pelicans basketball facility directly is across the parking lot from the Saints practice facility, a stone’s throw away.
He knows exactly what to do to basketball rims. Likely, he envisions getting on the court inside the new, multi-million dollar playpen, and showing off his hops and his arsenal of dunks.
But the basketball facility is off limits during the NFL season, and with good reason.
Graham is pretty good at his day job, playing tight end at an elite, almost unmatched level for the Saints. And when he does it right, he gets to work on his dunks because when he does it right, he gets into the end zone.
And all that production – 238 career receptions, 3,006 yards and 29 touchdowns – remains amazing even as he pulls farther away from his past as a basketball player and dives deeper into his present and future in the NFL. He only played football one season at Miami before becoming the Saints’ third-round pick (No. 95 overall) in 2010.
“I’ve grown a lot, from literally the basketball court and not know-ing what a stick route was or what a seam route was to three years later, I’m very comfortable, especially with (Saints quarterback) Drew (Brees),” Graham said. “I think me and Drew, in the red zone, we have a great matchup and we always look to exploit that. We always look for the matchup and that's what I think I give this team, a great target for No. 9."
He is as reliable a target as Brees has in the offensive huddle, a teammate who has earned the trust of one of the NFL’s most accomplished, productive, reliable quarterbacks.
“Drew, he’s always told me that I’m open even if I have one or two (defenders) on me,” said Graham, whose adventurous side extends to flying. He earned his airplane pilot’s license in 2012. “(Brees) says, ‘You never know when that ball is going to come,’ and, ‘If you have two on you I’m still going to throw it because I think you’re open.’ “He just has that confidence. He knows where to throw it. That’s one of his stronger points – he’s able to place the ball on your back shoulder or over the top, or right in the area where the defense isn’t looking and you can get one right over them.”
It doesn’t hurt that Graham is as freakishly athletic as he is, possessor of skills comparable to a player eight inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than the 270 pounds he carries.
That package has made him the club’s leader for a tight end for receiving touchdowns, to the two best single-season reception totals by a Saints tight end (99 in 2011 and 85 last season) and into second place all- time on the franchise receptions list by a tight end (Hoby Brenner leads with 267).
“I think that he has been consistent,” Coach Sean Payton said. “I know that he has worked on all the details. He is still a young player. He is someone that works very hard on his trade and prepares like you would expect a professional, but I think the consistency (is important) and it’s good to see him (have it). There are a handful of players – (right tackles)
The results are obvious.
Graham played much of last season with a wrist injury. It contributed to a reported 14 drops by the tight end, and led to a dip in production. After catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, Graham checked in at 85 catches for 982 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
Fantastic numbers, absolutely. But not measuring up to the crossbar Graham had set.
“Last year was tough,” he said. “Numbers-wise, if you look at it, it’s a pretty OK bad year. But we didn’t get the wins and for me, that’s what’s important. I’m going to sacrifice anything or do anything for this team that I need to do to help us win. All the accolades and all the records – none of that really matters if you’re not in the playoffs. Last year was my first year not going to the playoffs. The number one thing (for this season) was to get healthy. Last year was a battle and I did that. It feels great to be back to 100 percent and back to playing like me. And the second thing is, put on a little weight because I knew I’d be block ing a lot more this year and I knew they were going to run the ball to my side.
“I’m 270. I’m still able to run, still able to move but now, at the run (as a blocker), I’m just a little better.”
The increased heft helps. The return to health helps. The freakish ability helps.
But so, too, does Graham’s edginess. He’s undeniably and unapologetically fiery, his red hair seeming to be a symbol of the emotional flame that lives within and often spouts.
It can be seen in the dunks, in the yells, in the punctuating spikes of the football after difficult catches in training camp.
“I’m the type of guy, I always play with kind of a chip,” Graham said. “I always play every game with a lot of emotion, I always play as if I’m always trying to prove myself. I’m always looking for my respect. That’s always the way I play each and every game.”
He has respect, to an exponential degree. And he has a future that is as bright as can be for a 26-year-old.
“I never really looked in the future,” he said. “For me it was one step at a time, one play, one practice. I’ve always done that, even in the offseason. I think that’s what has helped me to not be overwhelmed.”
Since joining the Saints, Graham mainly is the one who has done the overwhelming. He’s the one who has taken his game to new heights, and expectations of him into the stratosphere.
He’s the one assaulting crossbars with two-handed jams and 360s. And those dunks are just fine with his teammates and coaches.