METAIRIE, La. — Bill Belichick knows a good receiver when he sees one.
New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham fits that mold.
“Certainly, Jimmy Graham is as good as anybody we’ve seen all year or will see in the passing game,” the Patriots head coach said this week. “He is very athletic. He has great athletic ability down the field to come up with the ball. He is fast and quick and is a hard guy to match up to no matter who you put on him.”
There’s only one problem. Graham is classified as a tight end, not a receiver.
And don’t ask Drew Brees what he is because he won’t tell. He’s either playing coy or he, like everyone else, is not so sure.
“Best receiver?” Brees said back when asked. “He is one of the best offensive players but he still has a long way to go just like all of us do.”
If Graham has a long way to go, NFL defenses should punch in their time cards and go home. He’s already setting an unprecedented pace through five games, currently on a path that would obliterate Rob Gronkowski’s receiving record for a tight end by 570 yards.
He’s doing it in spite of seeing coverages designed to take him out of the game. The results haven’t been good for New Orleans’ opponents. In the past four games, he has finished with at least 100 yards receiving. He also has five touchdowns.
Sunday, when the Saints (5-0) play at New England (3:25 p.m., Fox), it’s likely that Graham and the offense will face yet another defense designed to take Graham out of the game.
Brees says that’s just fine. New Orleans will be prepared for the Patriots (4-1).
“I’m sure there’s something that everybody can throw at us that we haven’t seen before,” the quarterback said. “That’s why we try to throw a lot at people and hope that our ability to execute and get in and out of the huddle quickly, that that stresses the defense.
Against Chicago this past week, Graham caught 10 passes for 135 yards. Most of those passes were underneath on what would be called hot routes in football parlance. In layman’s terms, he was the safe option for Brees.
What did the Bears do differently against Graham to keep him from doing any further damage?
“Obviously Chicago, I feel like they did do a lot of things differently, especially the second half,” Graham said. “I had guys flying in front of my face. One time I got tackled and I didn’t even have the ball.”
Still, he played an integral role in New Orleans’ first touchdown drive, catching passes of 29 and 38 yards to move the Saints down the field.
A season after what he would describe as a down year – 85 catches for 952 yards – it appears the tight end is back to being a delicious mismatch for the Saints’ offense.
Oh, and he’s doing it in a contract year, too, in case you missed that.
“You know, this season for me is everything about proving the type of player that I am,” said Graham, who is in the final year of a $2.4 million rookie deal. “I feel like I disappointed myself last year and I wasn’t able to do the things that I wanted to do. I mean, if you look at the stats, some people laugh at it because I had a decent year stat-wise.
“But as far as putting this team in the best opportunity to win and making the plays that I know I can make, so now I play with every emotion that I have in my body. I play because I feel like I have a lot to prove.”
Only one other tight end in NFL history has more receiving yards through his first 51 games than Graham. Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow had 3,341 yards, just 100 more than Graham, in 48 games. And only Gronkowski’s 38 touchdowns by a tight are more than Graham’s 31 in a tight end’s first 51 games.
Gronkowski, the Patriots tight end, hasn’t played yet this season, however, as he has healed from offseason forearm and back surgeries. Graham hopes to see him on the field Sunday, calling him a “fierce competitor.”
It’s Graham, for now, who is setting the NFL afire. Four years after drafting him, coach Sean Payton thinks back to that process and the chance they took on the tight end.
“I think just to be fair to the process, I don’t know initially in the process any one of us were that confident or we would have selected him in the first round,” Payton said. “I know the area scout, I know after paying attention to the workouts and although his playing time was limited, we felt there was potential with the player that had a lot of upside.”
That upside has turned into other teams working feverishly to find a way to shut him down. It hasn’t worked so far and while Graham wishes they wouldn’t, he has ultimately come to grips with it.
“I feel like that’s difficult to do against our team because of our personnel, the weapons we have, the ability of Drew to go through 1 through 5 back to 1 and Sean Payton’s play-calling,” Graham said.