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John DeShazier: Jimmy Graham wants to be complete tight end for New Orleans Saints

Big tight end has been working on his blocking

With or without a helmet, it's hard to miss Jimmy Graham.

Even if the close-cropped, red hair is covered by his New Orleans Saints headgear, the 6-foot-7 tight end stands at least a head above almost all of his teammates.

"I need a stool (to reach Graham's height)," joked Mark Ingram, the 5-9 running back who elected on Tuesday to hold a joint media availability with Graham.

Figuratively, that's about where Graham stands among his position in the NFL, too. And the possibility of him creating more separation this season exists as long as Graham continues on his career arc.

The fact that Graham's third season was considered a bit of a "down" season, compared to his second year, speaks volumes about the expectations for him. Because he'd have needed to post a second consecutive all-time season to top 2011, when he caught a team-record 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, all marks that led the team.

As it was, last year, he again led the team in receptions (85) while also totaling 982 yards and nine touchdowns. Among NFL tight ends the last two seasons, no one has more receiving yards than Graham's 2,292, only Dallas' Jason Witten (with 189) has more receptions than Graham's 184 and only New England's Rob Gronkowski (with 28) has more receiving touchdowns than Graham's 20.

His nose for the end zone remains intact, and during training camp, Graham has punctuated his touchdown grabs – and several other outstanding snares – with field-denting spikes.

Per NFL rules this season, such shows of emotion might result in a 15-yard, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. But Saints fans should have no concerns. Graham, they've learned, is a dunker, not a spiker.

"Since there's no goal post, I just go to the spike," he said Tuesday. "I'm kind of a passionate player, kind of an emotional player, so even in practice I do the same."

Those emotions ran the gamut last season. Graham had standout individual numbers, but the team finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs, and a wrist injury contributed to an inordinate amount of drops for the fourth-year tight end, New Orleans' third-round draft pick in 2010.

Coach Sean Payton, sidelined last season due to suspension, took note of his tight end's season and had a conversation with Graham in which Payton shared his findings.

"First, he called me and I didn't recognize the number so I didn't pick it up," Graham said, with a smile. "So he was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back.

"The meeting and the conversation were very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things I need to correct from last year, and how he's ready to be back and he's ready to see my growth even more.

"I would say (improvement is needed in) all areas of my game, especially the blocking. I'm like 270 (pounds) right now. I've been out there blocking quite a bit. That's just me wanting to be a complete tight end. That's what I want to do for this team and for myself and my career."

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Said tight ends coach Terry Malone: "Everyone was disappointed in last season and Jimmy is no exception. He was disappointed in the way he played because we weren't winning games. If we had ended up 12-4 and made a run in the playoffs, I'm sure he would've been a lot happier.

"But because of all the things that happened last year – that's the type of guy he is. He takes it personally, he knows that he did not perform at the level that he expects himself. That's why he's a guy that's easy to coach."

Thus far in training camp, Graham certainly appears to be at the top of this game.

First, he's a mismatch in size for any defender, glaringly too big for a defensive back to handle.

Second, athletically, he tilts the field in his favor because he not only is too fast and agile to be covered by a linebacker, he also is too fast and agile to be covered by most opposing cornerbacks and safeties.

Toss in the fact that his hands likely could double for catcher's mitts, and the result is that New Orleans possesses a weapon it can use anywhere on the field, in space or tight quarters, at the 50-yard line or in the red zone.

"He's done a good job continuing to develop his knowledge of football and of defenses," Malone said. "His recognition and his recall are a lot better than what it was when he first got here. He's trying to be as physical a player at the point of attack as he can.

"He has continued to develop his skills. He's got such great natural ability and size and speed that it gives him an advantage in a lot of things. But the more he pays attention to detail and gets the details down, the easier it'll be for us to complete passes."

For the most part, Graham, who is entering his fourth season of playing football, already has made it look easier than it is. The skills he already has displayed are the ones Payton, and his teammates, are counting on him to sharpen and perfect.

"Sean's a very direct kind of person," Graham said. "I don't think I've had a conversation with him that hasn't been very direct. It's something I'm used to, him setting high standards for me and telling me directly to my face. That's just how he is. He doesn't beat around the bush. He's the type of guy who lets you know how he feels."

And Graham, too, isn't bashful about sharing his feelings.

The spiked balls that have become routine during training camp soon will disappear. In place, he's seeking dunks, the stamp of approval on the kinds of plays that have lifted him above his positional peers.

NOTE: Defensive end Kenyon Coleman left Tuesday's practice early with a chest injury. The severity will be evaluated. Also, Payton said there was no new information to report regarding injured receiver Joe Morgan (knee). Other Saints sitting out Tuesday's morning practice were linebacker Jonathan Vilma, receiver Andy Tanner, defensive end Tom Johnson and linebackers Eric Martin and Ray Shipman. Vilma was expected to return for the afternoon walkthrough, while the others will be evaluated daily.

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