RENTON — About midway through Jimmy Graham’s rookie season in 2010, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees knew they had something in the unrefined tight end.
Graham had done little the opening eight weeks of his first NFL season, which wasn’t surprising since he only played one season of college football at Miami, spending most of his time on the basketball court.
At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, his muscular frame was enticing despite his meager football resume. The hand-eye coordination and leaping ability he developed from basketball gave New Orleans enough belief in the possibilities that it made Graham a third-round pick.
In his first eight games, Graham had eight catches. He had 23 in his next eight games, including his first NFL touchdown in Week 9.
“That’s when you noticed that this guy could do some things,” Brees said.
The Seahawks will be paying particular attention to Graham on Monday night when the Saints come to Seattle.
After that basic start to his career, Graham has caught 99, 85 and, this year, 65 passes. He has 36 career touchdowns and has been targeted 99 times this season by Brees.
“It takes everything that we have to slow a guy down like this,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said.
The Saints will move Graham often. He motions out wide, comes tucked off the line and heads to the slot.
His prowess stems from his staggering blend of size and mobility. Separation from a defender is not a prerequisite for Brees to throw to Graham. The only requirement is for Graham to be near the ball.
“(Brees) knows that he can throw the ball at him, with coverage all over him and he can still make plays,” Carroll said. “He really is a fast guy as well. They totally know how to use his talents and Drew (Brees) understands it as well. That’s the most important part; he can get the ball to him. So we have to cover him in multiple ways.”
The New England Patriots used a specific tact in Week 6 to hold Graham to zero receptions for the first time in almost three years. They put cornerback Aqib Talib up on the line of scrimmage to jam Graham, often leaving Talib by himself despite a five inch height disadvantage and 60-pound weight deficit. Talib shoved Graham at the line, then often afterward. He pushed, pressed, grabbed and sometimes held.
That approach is an option for the Seahawks.
“The way he just stood there for his challenge, he didn’t back off, he didn’t soft shoe; he just stood there and fought with him the whole game,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said of Talib. “I think you can take some away from that, but I think schematically we’re a totally different defense so we’ll play (him) totally different. We try not to tailor our whole defense towards one person.”
The Seahawks have a strong belief in their base defense, which means Graham should often be faced by strong safety Kam Chancellor.
Chancellor is bigger and more ornery than Talib. At 232 pounds, he has the might to push back at Graham.
“Big tight end, big safety,” Chancellor said. “It’s going to be a good matchup.”
Chancellor shadowed big Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez in the Seahawks’ Week 10 road victory win, restricting him to three catches for 29 yards.
Graham — whom Carroll says is a blend of Gonzalez and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis — has superior athleticism to Gonzalez. Yet, Chancellor feels Graham’s missing a key ingredient.
“I wouldn’t say he has hands like Gonzalez,” Chancellor said. “(Gonzalez) catches like 80, 85 percent of what’s in his area. I wouldn’t put his hands up there with Gonzalez’s, but he has good hands also.”
Despite that, Graham has plenty to keep the Seahawks occupied.
“We’ll try to slow him down the best we can and keep him from controlling the game,” Carroll said.