Birds set for dangerous Saints offense
Jimmy Graham led the NFL this season with 16 receiving touchdowns. (USA Today Images)
He’s a wide receiver masquerading in a tight end’s body.
Jimmy Graham stands 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, runs a 4.53 in the 40, catches everything in sight and is one of the Eagles’ biggest concerns in their playoff game against the Saints Saturday night at the Linc.
Graham, in his fourth NFL season, caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards this year, joining Tony Gonzalez as only the second tight end in NFL history with two 1,200-yard seasons.
Graham joined Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski as the third tight end in history to catch 80 or more passes and average at least 14 yards per catch, and his 16 touchdowns are second-most ever by a tight end, behind Gronkowski’s 17 in 2011.
How much of a weapon is the 27-year-old Graham?
Only seven wide receivers have more receiving yards over the past three seasons, only three have more catches and none of have more touchdowns.
The Eagles have plenty to worry about Saturday night, but Drew Brees’ favorite target is Graham, although he averaged just 54 yards in the last five games.
“He's the No. 1 target they have, and he's been their most consistent target,” Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. “He's a big, athletic tight end, catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place, so it's tough to practice and get a bead on how to help guys on him.
“He is the No. 1 target but one of the attributes of all great offenses and like this one, this ball goes to everybody. It goes to the open man, and Drew Brees does a great job of doing that quickly.”
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2011, the former Miami (Fla.) basketball forward has 270 receptions, 3,507 yards and 36 touchdowns in three seasons.
The 270 catches are fourth most ever by a tight end in a three-year span, behind only Jason Witten (283 from 2010 through 2012), Tony Gonzalez (278 from 2007 through 2009) and Witten (271 from 2007 through 2009).
The yards are by far the most ever by a tight end in a three-year stretch. The previous high was Witten’s 3,127 from 2007 through 2009.
And the 36 touchdowns are second most, behind Gronkowski’s 38 from 2010 through 2012.
“Jimmy is definitely a top tight end because he’s almost like a wideout,” Eagles middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “He lines up at the outside position a lot and he gets a lot of balls thrown his way. He’s like a star wideout for them.”
Want to feel sick?
The Saints drafted Graham in the third round in 2010.
Nine spots after the Eagles took Daniel Te’o-Nesheim.
“He’s a big target and he is someone that understands leverage,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously a former basketball player, but he can go up and make plays above his head and so he is not only a threat on the field but a threat in the red zone. He is having an outstanding season for us.
“I know there is a lot of confidence in his route tree. It is a little more expansive than what would be a conventional tight ends route tree.”
The challenge facing the Eagles is how to cover Graham.
Normally, the Eagles cover tight ends with an assortment of linebackers and safeties. But Graham is such a size-speed freak that many teams assign a cornerback to him.
The Eagles could use Bradley Fletcher on Graham and swing Brandon Boykin outside to cover a receiver, although Davis prefers to keep Boykin in the slot.
“I think that's the one thing about Jimmy that makes him such a special player -- he's probably too athletic for linebackers to cover, but he's too big for defensive backs to cover, and he's never going to be in the same spot,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said.
“He doesn't line up as a traditional tight end attached to the tackle. He could be the lone receiver, he could be in the back in the backfield. They move him all around and get him to favorable matchups and that's the dilemma when you face that offense.”
The Eagles have been pretty good against tight ends this year, although Witten did catch 12 for a season-high 135 yards last weekend in Dallas.
“Witten made some plays on us,” Ryans said. “Crafty veteran guy who’s definitely done it for a while. We made some plays on him. There are a few things we can get better on, and I think we’ll do that this weekend.”
Witten was the second tight end over 100 yards against the Eagles this year. Antonio Gates, another all-time great, had eight for 124. Tim Wright of the Buccaneers (91 yards) and Martellus Bennett of the Bears (85) were the only other tight ends over 70 yards.
Graham caught eight passes for 72 yards with a third-quarter touchdown last year when the Saints beat the Eagles, 28-13, at the Superdome.
“They get him out spread, they get him out wide, they put him close in the slot, they stack him up,” Eagles corner Cary Williams said.
“He’s their Queen tight end. He can do everything on the field. He’s a guy that’s 6-6, runs a decent 40, jumping ability, great body control, a guy with great hands, eye concentration. He does everything you could ask of a Pro Bowl tight end.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Williams said. “This year, it's nameless, faceless guy. He can come out to my side and we’re going to compete.”