FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski couldn’t be much more opposite off the field.
Graham keeps a low-profile. Gronkowski ends up in tabloid magazines and TV shows.
Graham spends time flying planes and getting instrument rated. Gronkowski spends his time on the ground and in the spotlight.
But it’s what the two did on the field in 2011 that makes them so much alike.
Graham, the New Orleans Saints tight end, set an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end in a year during the season finale, compiling 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns through mismatches during a 14-win campaign.
Literally minutes later, Gronkowski surpassed Graham’s total, ending the year with 1,326 yards and 18 touchdowns while providing mismatches equally as tantalizing as the Patriots made the Super Bowl.
Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Saints practicing against the Patriots in suburban Boston, the two found themselves the center of attention.
Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said their playing styles are completely different, Graham using his superior athleticism while Gronkowski takes advantage of his 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame better.
“I think Jimmy may be a little bit more fluid in his route-running ability,” Shanle said. “But Gronkowski, they keep him in line a little bit more to block. I mean he’s huge size-wise. But they’re both mismatch nightmares as far as putting a linebacker or safety on them.”
Safety Roman Harper, one of the Saints with a history of problems covering a tight end, understands why both Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady continue going to them.
“When you get a good tight end, you lean on him,” Harper said. “Most quarterbacks do. They are bigger and more athletic than linebackers and DBs, it just makes it harder on them too.”
While Graham is alone on the Saints’ roster as far as standout tight ends, Gronkowski is not. The Patriots also count Aaron Hernandez among those who provide mismatches.
Hernandez (6-1, 245 pounds) finished 2011 with 910 yards on 79 catches.
Graham said he has learned from both by watching film, hoping the skills he’s picking up can help him in 2012.
“Gronkowski in the red zone, the way he uses his body and size, me and him are a similar size,” Graham said. “Hernandez, the way he runs his routes. He’s a technician in his routes. He really gets guys off balance with some quick false movements.”
Likewise, Gronkowski said having Graham in camp the past few days gave him ideas on how to improve on his game.
“His speed, his separation definitely, he's good at the long ball, how he goes up and grabs it in the air,” the Patriots tight end said. “He used to be a basketball player, so it’s kind of cool to see him go up. He grabs the ball at the highest point and that’s something you always want to do when the ball is coming at you.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees knows of only one way to stop both.
“Maybe the only guys that can cover them are each other,” Brees said. “I don’t know.”
In the end, both Graham and Gronkowski are revolutionizing the game of football, making matching up with tight ends the most difficult part of game-planning before Sunday’s arrival.
“They can run, they can catch, they can run routes, they can block, they can get to the edge and kill you, they can catch the deep ball, they can catch outside of the framework of their body, they’re all good dancers, they’re good cooks and they love kids,” Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt said.
Just don’t ask who is better. Graham says there isn’t enough data to know yet.
“People will compare us the next ten years of our lives and of our careers, where there will be a better assessment,” he said. “I think we’ll be in competition for the next ten years, because of the type of players we are.”