Jimmy Graham realizes this isn’t possible, but the star New Orleans Saints tight end has always thought he should be targeted on every offensive play.
That’s why he doesn’t believe losing rookie receiver and teammate Brandin Cooks for the six games remaining on New Orleans’ schedule this year is reason for him switch up the mindset he approaches his job with every day.
“If he’s out or not, I want to do everything,” Graham — who leads the 4-6 Saints in catches (59), receiving yards (623) and touchdown grabs (seven) — said Saturday. “That’s just the player I am: I always think I’m open, and I always think the ball should come my way, (and) I know if (quarterback) Drew (Brees) throws my way, I’m going to do my best to go up there and get it for him and put this team in the best place to win.”
Many eyes turned to the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham after the Saints sent first-round draft choice Cooks to season-ending injured reserve with a broken thumb he sustained returning a punt in the 17-point defeat at home against Cincinnati on Sunday.
One school of thought was that it would become easier for defenses to focus their attention on Graham because they no longer needed to account for Cooks, who was second on the Saints in passes caught (53) and receiving yards (550) and tied for No. 2 in TD grabs (three). Cooks had also rushed for 73 yards on seven carries, most of which were sweeps that had him coming in from the wide receiver position and taking a handoff from Brees.
Others figured Graham would have to ramp up his on-field production for a Saints offense ranked second in the NFL in total yards gained as well as seventh in points scored per game to stay prolific.
However, the Saints have downplayed the effect Cooks’ absence could have on Graham. They’ve done that credibly because Cooks wasn’t running many routes over the middle and therefore not affecting how Graham was covered when operating in that area. Cooks spent much of his time running vertical and outside routes.
When Graham has lined up outside, a cornerback has usually covered him, occasionally with the assistance of a safety further up the field. The presence of Cooks or any other receiver does not alleviate that type of coverage.
Furthermore, even though last season’s Saints and this year’s team aren’t identical, it’s undeniable that Graham wasn’t easy to contain in 2013 even though he didn’t have a receiver all that similar to Cooks on his side.
Graham topped the Saints with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and a league-best 16 receiving touchdowns as New Orleans won 12 of 18 games to reach the divisional round of the playoffs last season. That all helped Graham earn a First Team All-Pro selection and secure a four-year contract extension that was unprecedented because it paid a tight end an annual salary of $10 million.
This year, after playing 10 games with Cooks, Graham is on pace for about eight more catches than he had last season. But he’s set to register approximately 218 fewer receiving yards and about five fewer TD catches.
That does not at all mean the Saints are glad to be without Cooks.
“Brandin’s a special player, and he’ll be missed,” Graham said two days before the Saints hosted the Ravens (6-4) on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. “He’s been a big part of what we’ve been able to do in some of our wins this year, (and) he’s a big match-up problem for us.”
But it hasn’t been tough for the Saints to find other players on the roster to whom they can assign Cooks’ routes.
“It doesn’t structurally change,” Payton said, “but it certainly changes another receiver in that spot.”
And defenses have schemed to minimize Graham’s impact as much this year as they did last season.
“Everybody that we play looks at Jimmy and says, ‘We have to plan for him,’ ” Brees said.
Graham added that teams seek him out even when he’s not making a catch. An example of that was when safety George Iloka drilled Graham after an incomplete pass to the tight end on the opening drive of New Orleans’ loss to Cincinnati, a play that resulted in a penalty against the Bengals.
Another example was when Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis hammered Graham helmet-to-helmet as a bobbled pass to another player was intercepted in New Orleans’ victory at Carolina on Oct. 30, a hit for which the defender was fined.
“People are hitting me on the line. People are hitting me if I don’t catch the ball. That’s how it’s going to be,” Graham said. “(Opponents) are going to have ... a specific game plan to slow me down and do whatever they can to mess up the timing with me and Drew.”
Cooks’ availability wouldn’t alter that.