Soon to be stars: Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham entered the NFL last season with just one year of college football experience -- he played basketball during his undergrad years at Miami and took up football during his first year of graduate work -- but he far exceeded expectations as a rookie.

His quick assimilation has me jumping out of my chair to see what he will do in his second year, and this time next year we could very well be lumping him in with Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley as the top pass-catching tight ends in the league.

Graham’s size is the first thing you notice about him. He has a basketball build (extreme height, long arms) and will continue to fill out as he mature, but Graham’s movement skills are those of a much smaller, more compact man.

He seems to glide across the field and rarely looks uncoordinated despite his lack of football experience, and his routes are natural and will only get better with time. Even his run and pass blocking are serviceable, and they, too, will continue to improve.

Graham can run past linebackers out of the slot and stretch the field in the passing game, and it won’t be long before he is one of the elite red zone targets in the NFL. He wasn’t much of a factor early in 2010 but got more playing time later in the season, scoring four touchdowns in the final three games of the regular season.

The New Orleans offense is perfect for Graham’s skill set. Having Drew Brees distributing the ball helps any receiving target, but coach Sean Payton also uses a diverse attack with varied personnel groupings that can move a player like Graham around the formation to get favorable matchups based on his combination of size and speed, and the attention he commands can also open up room for his teammates.

Given the Saints’ offseason commitment to solidifying their running game Graham should see looser coverages this season, and based on how easy he made things look in his rookie year I can’t wait to see what he does in 2011.

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