When the Saints traveled to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV at the end of the 2009 season, they didn’t just capture their first NFL championship.
They also seized the inside line on a draft prospect who blossomed into one of the best players in franchise history: Jimmy Graham, at whose campus the Saints practiced before the title game.
It was Graham’s coaches at the University of Miami who mentioned his name when the Saints asked them which Hurricanes player was most ready to perform at the pro level, even though he had played only one season of college football — as a backup. A little more than two months later, the Saints used a third-round draft pick, the 95th overall, to acquire Graham. Four years later, he was an Associated Press first-team All-Pro for the first time.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Payton and former Miami coach Randy Shannon all recently spoke about the Hurricanes’ hearty recommendation of Graham to New Orleans during its Super Bowl trip.
Their recollections illustrate how a football team’s relationships with others in the industry can be as beneficial as watching copious amounts of film in the run-up to the draft, which this year opens Thursday and wraps up Saturday.
“That was the first time (Graham’s) name kind of bounced out there,” Loomis said about the Saints’ pre-Super Bowl practices.
“Sometimes you can’t believe” someone as inexperienced as Graham would have the most potential out of a school like Miami, Shannon said. “But (the Saints) trusted what we were saying.”
As Loomis recalls, while the Saints prepared themselves to eventually beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-17, members of the New Orleans brain trust lobbed the same question to every coach, trainer and equipment handler they encountered on Miami’s campus: Who are your top prospects this season?
The answers were uniform, Loomis said. It was Graham, who caught a mere 17 passes for 213 yards as a reserve tight end but nonetheless scored five times to help Miami finish 9-4 in 2009.
“They kept saying, ‘Our best guy — I know you’re going to think this is crazy — is this tight end that played one year” of football and four seasons of basketball, Loomis said. “ ‘He didn’t play a lot. He’s kind of our backup tight end. But he’s our best prospect.’ ”
Loomis describes his initial reaction as such: “I was like, ‘What?!’ ”
Shannon vividly remembers Loomis’ baffled expression.
“Mickey couldn’t believe I would say that a guy in his first year playing was the best player at the University of Miami at that particular time,” said Shannon, now linebackers coach at Arkansas.
Graham’s Miami teammates included Leonard Hankerson — a receiver Washington would select in round three of the 2011 draft — and offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, who in his third NFL season helped Denver reach this year’s Super Bowl.
But Shannon insisted, “Here’s a guy who ... has great hands, was making unbelievable catches and can run.”
‘We’ve got to get this guy’
The Saints had reasons to trust Shannon and his subordinates. Curtis Johnson, who was in charge of the Saints wide receivers from 2006 to 2011 before moving across town to coach Tulane, had worked with Shannon at Miami for several years.
Cortez Kennedy, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and ex-Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle who was close friends with Shannon and played at Miami with him in 1988, was a Saints advisor. Loomis had been an executive in Seattle for much of Kennedy’s career with the Seahawks, which ran from 1990 to 2000.
And Miami still had a good relationship with tight end Jeremy Shockey, an ex-Hurricanes player who was in his second of three seasons with the Saints.
Yet, for good measure, Shannon said he made sure to share a story with the Saints that he felt illustrated Graham’s work ethic: To gear up for his lone season of college football, Graham put himself through outdoor workouts that began at noon every day that summer.
Graham didn’t exercise in the morning. He didn’t exercise in the evening. He opted to work out when the South Florida sun and temperatures were most unforgiving.
“That tells you a lot about a guy when he wants to work in the heat of the day,” Shannon said. “He wanted to be in great shape. He did, and he was unbelievable.”
After their Super Bowl triumph, the Saints checked the thoughts of their scout responsible for an area that encompassed Miami, Payton said. That area scout — Jim Monos, who became the Buffalo Bills’ director of player personnel in 2013 after about eight years with the Saints — had observed Graham, and he concurred with the Miami coaching staff’s assessment.
Payton noted that Saints area scouts usually present their information to the team’s top brass annually around February and March.
The Saints were intrigued, and they returned to Miami for Graham’s pro day.
He measured in at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds. They watched him bench-press 225 pounds 15 times, run a 20-yard shuttle in 4.39 seconds and stand out in positional drills.
He didn’t do anything else; he had already run the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds at the scouting combine, the second-fastest time among tight ends at the event. He also posted an impressive vertical jump of 38.5 inches and did well in drills at the combine.
“Our scouting staff was really high on him and really kept pushing Jimmy to Sean and I,” Loomis said. “Next thing you know we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to get this guy.’ ”
Get Graham they did. Some four years later, his 41 touchdown receptions are fourth all-time and the most for a tight end in the Saints record book.
His 301 catches and 3,863 receiving yards rank sixth and seventh all-time for the Saints, and they’re each tops among tight ends who have suited up for the franchise.
He holds single-season team records for catches (99 in 2011) and receiving touchdowns (an NFL-best 16 last year). He has gone to two Pro Bowls and helped the Saints to the playoffs in 2010, ’11 and ’13 before his rookie contract expired.
All of which leads to the present. To prevent him from becoming the league’s most-sought unrestricted free agent in March, the Saints handed Graham a one-year, $7.05 million franchise tag.
But Graham wouldn’t play under the tag if he and the Saints can agree on a long-term deal before a deadline in July, which the team has said is its ultimate goal. He isn’t under contract until he signs such a deal or the tag, and he has done neither so far.
As is his style, when speaking to reporters about negotiations with Graham and his representatives this offseason, Loomis hasn’t shown much — if any — emotion. But he let slip a couple of smiles the day he detailed how his team was turned on to one of its greatest players during the best week in franchise history.
“It happens,” Shannon said, “when you ... know people and have good relationships.”