As you may have heard, Jimmy Graham is a former college basketball player. In-booth commentators and outside media make sure you are aware of this each time you sit down to watch the New Orleans Saints tight end play. It’s a fun thing to bring up because he played basketball at the University of Miami for three years before finishing his senior year playing football. But what the media doesn’t know is that reminding the audience of his basketball-playing days repeatedly is offensive to Graham — very offensive.
When he enrolled into the 2010 NFL Draft, Graham was deemed an inexperienced, raw project that a team couldn’t roll the dice on too early in the draft, but could sometime midway through it. Although possessing a beautifully long and toned 6’7″ frame that’s to die for, he had no clue how to run pass routes and block. He was at his best as a red-zone target. But four years later, he’s more than that, and he’s no former basketball player — he’s an NFL tight end.
He’s the best tight end, and one of the best players in the league. He’s nearly indefensible, with defenders only managing to slow him down if they maul and grab him at the line of scrimmage. In the 2013 season, he only had two games with less than three receptions and three games with less than 40 yards. Otherwise, he had six games with more than 100 yards and 10 games with at least five receptions. Overall, Graham finished with 86 receptions for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns. And they didn’t all come by sinking his hips and bending his knees to box out defenders.
Graham runs an extensive route tree for a tight end. He’s able to run short and long routes without the slowness and hesitation that others at his position tend to run with. His route tree includes but is not limited to differing depths of crossing, seam, sluggo, snag/stick and corner routes. They make up the majority of his routes and are particularly difficult defend because he’s not only tall, but also athletic, quick and constantly aligning at different splits. He has quick feet that allow him to win at the line and separate at a route’s break, as well as the athleticism (and body control) to run routes elegantly downfield from varying splits. This combination makes it nearly impossible to defend him, forcing defensive coordinators to get creative.
”Everybody has tried everything.” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained to Pats Pulpit when asked about Graham heading into their Week 6 matchup with him. “Tried to jam him at the line, at times he’s had linebackers on him, safeties on him, and he’d been double covered. Each team’s kind of got some of their own matchups. But he’s seen a lot of different coverages — man, zone, in-and-out, short-and-deep, jam at the line of scrimmage — he’s seen all of it.”
In that Week 6 matchup with Graham, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia instructed their defensive backs, particularly cornerback Aqib Talib, to constantly jam Graham at the line. They needed to be physical with him and not allow him to run freely into routes. That led to Graham going without a catch before leaving with injury in the second half, the only game which he didn’t record at least one. But since that game, teams have tried the same and found little success.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to jam Graham in Week 17 and were burnt for a 17-yard crossing route. It was the second quarter and more than nine minutes were left to be played before the half. The Saints were on their own 42-yard line and were looking to Graham to help them cross midfield. He was lined up as the No. 1 receiver at the right of the Doubles formation. Outside of him was rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks, who would man-cover him. It’s a difficult task, particularly when the tight end has the ability to easily run a deep crossing route.
When the play began, Banks slid closer to Graham, who released inside, and extended his nearly 34-inch arms to Graham’s right half. When Banks attempted to jam Graham, he failed to move his feet, causing him to fall behind on the crossing route. Along with Graham’s quickness, which showed when he ran through the seam and stabbed his right foot into the ground to cross midfield, that made it difficult for Banks to keep up with the tight end. Eventually, Graham hauled in well-thrown pass from Drew Brees above his head.
Going into last weekend’s Wildcard matchup with the Saints, the Philadelphia Eagles’ coaches and players struggled to figure out how to simulate and match Graham’s talents.
“He’s the No. 1 target they have, and he’s been their most consistent target,” defensive coordinator Billy Davis said to CSN Philly. “He’s a big, athletic tight end, catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place, so it’s tough to practice and get a beay on how to help guys on him.”
“I think that’s the one thing about Jimmy that makes him such a special player — he’s probably too athletic for linebackers to cover, but he’s too big for defensive backs to cover, and he’s never going to be in the same spot,” head coach Chip Kelly added. “He doesn’t line up as a traditional tight end attached to the tackle. He could be the lone receiver, he could be in the back in the backfield. They move him all around and get him to favorable matchups and that’s the dilemma when you face that offense.”
At one point in the Wildcard game against the Eagles, they tried to match up with Graham by having a defender simply mirror his steps at the line and throughout his route. That was a mistake, as they were burned for a 17-yard catch.
The second quarter was coming to an end and with less than two minutes were left, and the Eagles held a 7-3 lead. Looking to mount a last-second drive to put points on the board, the Saints spread three pass-catchers to the formation’s right to form a Trips set and a lone receiver on the back-side. To the right was Graham, lined up the furthest inside of the three and a short split from the offensive line. He was set to run a corner route against the coverage of outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who isn’t nearly as athletic as Graham.
At the snap, Graham took his first step to his left like he was releasing inside on a crossing route and then shifted back to his right, exploding forward and running past Barwin, who attempted a last-second jam. As Graham ran, he stayed ahead of the linebacker and kept his shoulders squared like he was running a vertical route. Continuing to run vertically, Graham suddenly stuck his left foot out again, planting off of it 12 yards downfield and driving back to the outside. The cut created a healthy distance from Barwin and enabled Graham to get open near the sideline, where he contorted his body and brought in Brees’ back shoulder throw.
Now with the Saints in the NFC Divisional matchup, the Seahawks have to carry the burden of trying to figure out how to defend the “Queen tight end,” as Eagles cornerback Cary Williams once called Graham. The last time the two teams met, in Week 13, the Seahawks matched stud linebacker K.J. Wright one-on-one with Graham and found some success, holding him to 42 yards and a touchdown. But a week later against the San Francisco 49ers, Wright broke his foot and is still out with the injury, leaving the Seahawks without a superb cover linebacker.
When they tried to defend Graham with other players in the last meeting, they didn’t have the same success. The others weren’t as quick and physical and athletic as Wright was, which could be a problem when Graham splits out wide like he did in their last meeting to catch a 20-yard pass.
There were more than 10 minutes left in the second quarter when the Saints, down 17, lined up in the Seahawks’ territory at the 32-yard line. It was an empty set, meaning there was no one in the backfield other than Brees. Three pass-catchers split to the right to form a Trips Right set, and two were on the left in a Twins set. To the far left, at the No. 1 receiver spot, was Graham matched up with cornerback Byron Maxwell.
Maxwell was five yards in off-coverage from Graham and appeared to be playing with an outside shade, suggesting safety help from the two-high safety shell inside. When the play began, Graham released vertically and ran straight for 10 yards before rounding his route inside to complete a dig once the weak safety came underneath him. With Maxwell shuffling his feet in trail coverage and safety help arriving late in the middle of the field, Graham found a soft spot outside the near hash to haul in the 20-yard pass.
It’s uncertain how the Seahawks will defend Graham. They could bracket him with in-and-out or under-and-over coverage like Belichick suggested, but that’s not going to do it. Neither will constantly beating him at the line of scrimmage, even though the Patriots found some success with it.
Whatever they choose to do, the Seahawks have the monumental task of attempting to slow down the NFL’s best tight end, one who blends quickness, athleticism, and fine route-running to consistently wreak havoc on opposing defenses.