METAIRIE - On the first day of his second NFL training camp last week, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham looked around and thought he was a rookie all over again.
A year ago, Graham was one of the new kids on the block as the third-round draft pick of the Super Bowl champions. In addition, he was a novice to the game after playing just one season of football at the University of Miami following a four-year basketball career for the Hurricanes.
On Thursday, there were lots of new faces in the locker room and nowhere to be found were the two veteran tight ends - Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas - who helped Graham learn the ropes as a football newbie.
Shockey was released last February and is now with the Carolina Panthers, while Thomas, an unrestricted free agent, has yet to sign with the Saints or any other team.
Shockey and Thomas certainly had their fun with the na?ve youngster.
The two veterans jokingly told him he couldn’t talk to the media and when he started to emerge as a weapon in the Saints’ offense, they made him buy dinner for them every time he was seen talking to a reporter.
“This is probably the first interview that I’ve given that I won’t have to buy somebody a meal,” Graham said after the Saints first practice on Friday. “I didn’t even think about that.”
It’s yet another sign that the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Graham is ready to spread his wings and fly after a promising first season in which he caught 31 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns.
His emergence, especially in the second half of the season when he had 26 receptions for 307 yards, helped pave the way for Shockey’s release.
That Graham feels he’s ready to take the next step is another positive sign for the Saints, who, like Graham, would like to see Thomas come back soon.
“Coming in as a rookie, my eyes were wide open,” said Graham. “This year, I was very confident and just ready to get it started. I was just glad to finally be back here.”
While he lost his two mentors, the challenge is still there for Graham.
“The big thing for me is trying to cut down on the mental errors I had last year,” he said. “I’m really focused and I’m excited for the opportunity, and I’m going to take full advantage of it.”
Part of that, Graham said, has to do with his blocking technique more than his pass-catching abilities. While he certainly showed enough of the latter last season and so far in camp, he needs to work on his blocking.
“I had to get stronger and learn how to stay low,” said Graham, who worked on that with the help of linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Jo-Lonn Dunbar in South Florida during the offseason. “I’m really focused on that, just getting better at that. That will help me get better.”
Part of trying to become a better blocker included more weight training and adding 10 pounds to the 255 pounds he carried last season.
“You can be bigger and stronger and still be explosive,” Graham said. “I’m just excited to see it translate to out here. I’m still trying to be explosive, but I still want the speed and the elusiveness coming out of my breaks.”
Graham quickly became a favorite target of five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, who threw passes to another tall target in former basketball player Antonio Gates when he was with the San Diego Chargers.
“Jimmy has progressed very well when you look at him from the start of the (2010) season to the end of the season,” Brees said of Graham, an especially inviting target in the red zone. “He became a guy that we game-planned for and tried to create opportunities for.
“I think he sees the opportunity he has. As a second-year player - as young, athletic and smart as he is - I think the sky is the limit. We’re going to give him every opportunity possible.”
But, despite his early success, Graham knows he still has a lot to learn.
“Every day is a learning experience for me,” he said. “It’s incredible to think how far I have come in less than two years. It seems like I keep taking steps forward, and I’m going to try to take as many steps forward as I can to get ready for that Green Bay game.”