METAIRIE, La. — When Jimmy Graham was first drafted by the New Orleans Saints, the tight end took down his page on the social media site Facebook. He still has yet to set up a Twitter account.
“I kind of just wanted to focus and not have any distractions,” Graham said. “I try to stay away from all that stuff.”
The second-year pro may be far behind many of his NFL contemporaries in terms of virtual friends and followers. As for production on the field, that’s another matter entirely.
Through the first four weeks of this season, Graham ranks in the top 10 among NFL tight ends in four key categories as he has increasing become quarterback Drew Brees’ go-to guy. He is first in receptions with 24, second in yards receiving with 367, fourth in touchdowns with three and eighth in yards per catch at 15.3.
He has had no fewer than 100 yards receiving in each of his past two games, becoming only the second tight end in Saints history to register triple-digit receiving yardage in consecutive games.
The first was Henry Childs back in 1979, and no Saints tight end has even done it in three straight weeks, as Graham has a chance to do when he returns to his home state, North Carolina, this Sunday as the Saints (3-1) meet the Carolina Panthers (1-3).
“I’m not even close to satisfied,” Graham said after practice on Thursday. “One of my biggest goals this year was to make an impact play every game, so I want to be somebody that Drew can look to in a tough situation and can count on.”
Graham’s growth as a tight end has been remarkable in that, when the Saints drafted him in the third round in 2010, he had played only one season of college football at Miami after spending four years as a power forward for the Hurricanes’ basketball team.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Graham is one of several NFL tight ends with a basketball background, following in the footsteps of players like Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez and San Diego’s Antonio Gates. The Saints were banking on Graham following suit when they drafted him.
Fewer expected that, four games into his second pro season, he would have 102 more yards receiving that any other player on the team.
“At this point last year, he was talented but raw, so green still,” Brees said. “Even though it’s been only a year, he’s gained a lot in experience. ... You see him having this mentality of trying to be great and he loves football. He’s his biggest critic. .. I love seeing young guys like that who are going to police themselves and do the right thing.”
It seems that Brees’ only concern is whether too much success is coming too quickly for Graham, and how he’ll respond to it.
“When you look at the success that he’s had so early, it’s easy to assume that it’s always going to be this easy, but it’s not,” Brees said. “The guy works extremely hard at it and we spend a lot of time together and I really think he’s only scratching the surface as to what he can do and how we can assimilate him into this offense. So I’m excited for Jimmy Graham, but I never want to get too far ahead of ourselves here. He can get a lot better.”
Graham is already noticing an uptick in the attention he receives from fans when he walks around his downtown neighborhood or goes out to eat. When word got around that he didn’t have an established nickname yet, fans who saw him started suggesting them.
“Every time I go out to eat someone’s screaming out some crazy name, so it’s been pretty entertaining,” Graham said.
He was a little puzzled when one fan suggested “Avatar.” He was amused when another offered, “The Graham Reaper.”
This weekend, though, he’ll just be “Jimmy” to some loved ones in the stands, including his adoptive mother and his biological mother, with whom he has re-established a relationship after a turbulent childhood that saw him left in a group home for boys when he was 11-years-old.
If Graham never takes his success for granted, his rough childhood will be a main reason why.
When he thinks of what he overcame to graduate from college and arrive on the brink of NFL stardom, he’ll always credit Becky Vinson, the woman who adopted him even though she was struggling financially at the time to pay bills and provide the way she wanted to for her daughter, Karena, who is also expected to be at the game.
“Whenever my guardian adopted me, she said, ‘One day you’re going to be somebody,’” Graham recalled. “So I wouldn’t say that she’s shocked (by his success). Every time I see her she tells me, ‘I knew it.’ But she’s happy for me. And for us, it’s been pretty special.”Click here to order Jimmy Graham’s proCane Rookie Card.