Jimmy Graham insists he isn't miffed about his lack of a contract extension, even as his highlight-reel catches and gaudy statistics put him on track to be one of the best tight ends the NFL has seen.
Then again, if Graham were angry, it might not be such a bad thing for the New Orleans Saints.
Graham, who'll seek a third-straight 100-yard receiving game when New Orleans (3-0) hosts the Miami Dolphins (3-0) on Monday night, says he thrives on anger on the field. That would explain the force of nature he's resembled in the Saints' air attack since Tampa Bay's attempts to intimidate him backfired so badly a couple weeks ago.
"If somebody hits me big, you can probably tell I'm probably jabbering a few things back at him, telling him that, 'I'm going to be here all day,'" the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham said. "I find it as a challenge and I invite all of it. ... It gets me angry, which is good."
In helping the Saints to victories over the Buccaneers and Cardinals in Weeks 2 and 3, Graham made 19 catches for 313 yards and three touchdowns. Much of that production came after Graham was folded backward on a penalized blast to his head by Tampa Bay's Ahmad Black.
What looked at first like a knockout blow produced an opposite result. Now, stopping Graham has become the problem of another Florida team.
"His production over the last two weeks has been off the charts," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "He obviously has great size and weight. He seems to be a natural running down the field and going up and catching the ball. He can catch the ball in traffic. He can catch the ball when he gets hit. He has excellent concentration and hands. His size and length are an issue, and it's a concern when you go play him."
Many Miami sports fans are familiar with Graham's character and toughness. He was abandoned as a child before being adopted by a woman who counseled Graham's youth group at a North Carolina church. The stability his adoptive mother provided helped him earn a basketball scholarship to Miami. He was a physical power forward, and now offers a self-effacing smile while describing himself as a player who had more fouls than points.
He thrived as a student and athlete at Miami, and Hurricanes fans, including university president and former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala, held him up as an inspiration. Football coaches saw his ability to run the floor and grab rebounds, and figured he'd make a great tight end. He gave it a shot in 2009, his final year of NCAA eligibility, and Saints scouts weren't the only ones who noticed.
He could have become a Dolphin if Saints coach Sean Payton hadn't taken Graham off the market in the third round of the 2010 draft. Payton's mentor and former boss, Bill Parcells, was an executive with Miami at the time and had his eye on Graham.
"I do remember 30 seconds after the selection, getting a phone call from Parcells," Payton said, adding he could tell Graham was someone Parcells targeted. "That makes you feel good, rather than him saying, 'What did you take him for?' To Jimmy's credit, he's come in and his transition has been fairly quick with maybe the lack of experience that a lot of players would have in college."
Since 2011 (including playoffs) Graham leads NFL tight ends with 219 catches for 2,808 yards, and leads NFC tight ends with 27 TDs. His numbers might have been even better if not for a wrist injury that led to what would be considered a down year by Graham's standards in 2012: 85 catches, 982 yards, nine TDs.
"It feels good to be healthy. I can't lie about that," Graham said. "This offseason is the hardest that I've worked in not only rehab but just on little things — you know — film room. But I think more than anything, I'm playing with more emotion than I ever have."
The Saints want to lock down Graham long term, but general manager Mickey Loomis tends to be a deliberate and patient negotiator. The Saints could use the franchise tag to prevent Graham from leaving.
Graham could have held out, but noticed a collective sense of purpose at Saints headquarters as Payton returned from his 2012 bounty ban, and he wanted to be part of it. And like quarterback Drew Brees in 2011, Graham has faith the Saints will ultimately treat him right.
"For me, it really is all football," Graham said. "I'm a very hungry player right now."
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