Every season there seems to be a different name mentioned as the NFL’s best tight end, but right now, with the New Orleans Saints riding high on the return of their head coach and an impressive passing game, there’s no one playing better at the position than Jimmy Graham.
Graham is leading all tight ends this season with 458 yards, an average of 114.5 per game. That puts him at second place among all eligible receivers behind only Julio Jones of the Falcons with 481. He’s second among all tight ends in receptions (Jordan Cameron of the Dolphins is ahead), while his average per reception (17) is the highest for players with over 21 receptions, and his six touchdown receptions are tied for the best in the league next to Wes Welker.
Graham is another one of those basketball tight ends: A 6-7, 265 pound guy who played as a power forward in college before converting to football full time. He’s possibly the most athletic, and the one who combines the best speed, strength and size attributes in the league.
There is Rob Gronkowski, but being able to stay away from injuries is another way to determine just how good a player is. Gronkowski, who still hasn’t played this season, hasn’t been able to show he’s fit enough for a long and sustainable career. He holds the record for most yards (1327) and receiving touchdowns (17) in a season by a tight end, but Graham is currently on pace to catch 108 passes for 1832 yards and 24 touchdowns. He’ll probably slow down at some point, but right now there’s no receiver or tight end playing better than him, making the most of Drew Brees’ focus on him.
Graham isn’t much of a blocker like Gronkowski is or Jason Witten can be for the Cowboys, but he is healthy unlike Gronkowski, and has an easier time creating separation than Witten, giving him more space to do something with the ball after the catch. Graham is 7th overall in the NFL with 128 yards after the catch this season, most among tight ends.
When compared with Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, the elder statesmen of the Basketball tight end, Graham exceeds them with his speed and having a long reach, obviously at this point of their careers but also when considering each player’s peak years. He’s also faster than Vernon Davis, who has been used a lot more in the slot as a wide receiver this season due to the 49ers having problems with their depth chart.
Graham is lucky enough to be playing with Drew Brees and the pass-happy offense called by Sean Payton. Leaving Brees and Payton on the back burner for a second, a big reason the Saints have been so successful this season is Jimmy Graham being too difficult for defenses to cover, more difficult than any other tight end in the NFL.