METAIRIE — In just his third season of football, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has already done what only one player did at his position in the first 44 years of the franchise’s existence.
With 100 receiving yards in a Week 3 victory over Houston and a career-high 132 yards in Sunday’s 23-10 win at Jacksonville, on a career-best 10 receptions, Graham is only the second tight end in Saints’ history to record back-to-back 100-yard receiving games.
But he’s the first basketball-turned-football player to do it.
It’s no small feat considering Saints tight ends had a total of 19 100-yard games before this season until Graham, a former University of Miami basketball player, made his mark.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Graham joined former Pro Bowl pick Henry Childs, who had 121 and 117 yards in back-to-back games for the Saints in November 1979.
It’s all part of the rapid ascent of Graham, who was chosen by the Saints in the third round of the 2010 draft even though he had only one year of college football under his belt.
“I think that we’re all seeing someone grow right in front of us,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who’s usually asked at least once a week about Graham in his daily news conferences. “It began at the end of last season, the last four or five weeks of last year.
“Certainly into this training camp and into this season, there’s a confidence level he has.”
More importantly, the exuberant Graham has gained the confidence of Payton and five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees in a short period of time — even when he makes a mistake like he did against the Texans.
Graham, who already has 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns this season, ran a bad route that resulted in an interception. Brees was upset at the time, but he got over it when Graham caught a 29-yard pass that led to the go-ahead touchdown in a 40-33 win.
“He’s a competitor … he’s a competitor,” a smiling Brees said after the game. “He wants you to trust him, and he wants you to have confidence in him.
“What I love is, he might run a (bad) route or make a mistake, and he’ll come to the sideline and it’s like, ‘Drew, I’m sorry. That won’t happen again, it’s not going to happen again.’ ”
The mistakes are something that can’t be overlooked, of course, but they’re often offset by leaping catches over smaller linebackers and defensive backs from a man whose quickness belies his size.
It’s no wonder he’s already being compared to future Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who played basketball at Cal before becoming the NFL’s all-time leading receiver among tight ends with 1,090 catches, 12,692 yards and 92 touchdowns.
Much like the 6-foot-5, 251-pound Gonzalez has done throughout his career, Graham celebrates touchdowns with a dunk over the crossbar of the goalpost, which is 10 feet off the ground like a basketball goal.
“We definitely have similar body types, so I feel like I can imitate certain things that he does,” said Graham, who constantly studies film of Gonzalez. “I watch the way he gets off the ball, how he runs certain routes, the way he uses his body.”
But he also likes tight end Jeremy Shockey, who will be on the other sideline when the Saints play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium.
Graham learned the NFL ropes from Shockey, who also played his college ball at Miami, in their only season together last year.
“I’m still a Shockey lover,” Graham said. “I like how physical he is when he runs, you know, and kind of how sudden he is (with his moves). So I’m always breaking down film trying to learn as much as I can.”
Graham certainly learned how intense and fiery Shockey was and has displayed a similar passion for the game when he jumps to his feet after a catch. But Graham said that dates to his basketball days, much like when he blocked a shot or threw down a dunk.
“Jimmy’s one of those young talented guys who’s getting better every day,” Brees said. “He’s a big physical presence. I’m excited to watch him develop. He aims to please … he wants to be the best. When he does do it right, he’s pumped.”
“I’m a very vocal player,” Graham said. “If I’m not into the game, I’m not going to play well. It’s one of those things; I play with my heart on my sleeve.”
Graham’s 132-yard receiving day Sunday was the second-highest in team history among tight ends, trailing the 144 yards Childs registered in a Dec. 7, 1980 game at San Francisco.
Until Sunday, Childs was one of only three Saints tight ends to have multiple 100-yard games in a career with five. Graham joined Childs and Hoby Brenner and Dave Parks, who each had four.
If his first 19 games are any indication, however, more will follow.
“Every game, Drew is getting more and more confident with me,” Graham said. “Drew is so good at finding the open receiver. Even if you’re the fifth (option), you still have an opportunity to get the football. In the end, he just finds the open receiver.”