METAIRIE, La. ― Sean Payton desperately looked for a reason not to like Jimmy Graham.
He wanted to hear someone knock the tight end’s hands.
He wanted to know that Graham had a difficult time learning on the fly.
But time and again, the reports came back in Graham’s favor.
Friday night, one more thing went in Graham’s favor – New Orleans selected him with their third-round pick in the NFL Draft, delivering the life-long Saints fan a phone call he’ll likely always remember.
“I think as the process evolved, you kept looking for a reason,” Payton said. “You’re waiting to hear we have to develop his hands or he’ll struggle learning at first. Certainly there’ll be a learning curve. That was one specific player that everyone felt good about.”
Graham, a 6-foot-6, 259-pounder, didn’t take the normal path to the NFL, playing four seasons of basketball for the Miami Hurricanes before playing only one year of football.
And while the Saints need help at defensive tackle and outside linebacker, New Orleans also had a need for a tight end on the roster to fill in behind Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas. Shockey has missed games the past two seasons for to heal from various injuries.
The Saints also have Tyler Lorenzen and Tory Humphrey on the roster as tight ends.
Nevertheless, Graham, 23, thinks he can help out immediately.
“I definitely think that I can help immediately,” Graham said. “First learning under those two guys is a great opportunity for me but I definitely have the ability to stretch the field with my speed and size and have the opportunity to get past the safeties. I’m very good in one-on-one coverage and I think that that’s where I’ll be able to help early and in special teams.
Though he grew up in North Carolina, Graham said he grew up a Saints fan after they were the first pro team he ever saw play.
Graham went to Miami on a basketball scholarship and it wasn’t until he used up all of his basketball eligibility that he took to the football field. The transition doesn’t appear to have been difficult.
He caught 17 passes for 213 yards in 2009, averaging 12.5 yards per catch. Five of his receptions were for touchdowns. In fact, each of his first three catches in his career were for scores.
“When you look at watching him run and catch and you see him progress,” Payton said. “You watch the improvement he made already and you look at some of the things he can do right now and you continue to develop everything else.”
He added, “When you start the process, there’s a few guys you look at you’re very attached to. He was one of those guys for us collectively.”
As a basketball player, he played in 39 games and shot 50.8 percent and averaged 4.24 points per game.
His key contributions, however, came in other ways. He blocked 104 shots in his four-year career, fourth-best in school history. He also grabbed 502 rebounds, averaging 4.2 boards per game.
Graham said the skills he used as an ACC basketball play easily translate for him onto the football field.
“I was an explosive basketball player, shot blocker and aggressive rebounder,” Graham said. “The ability to go up and get rebounds and the timing to block shots and to move my feet and to have touch around the basket and work on my hands. I think the ability to go get the ball and the footwork is definitely something that translates to football.”