You will find the number 80 in one of the top two spots on virtually every list of the best tight ends in the NFL. Jimmy Graham started his NFL career in New Orleans and racked up 355 catches, 4396 receiving yards and 46 TDs in his last 4 years, making the Pro Bowl 3 times. There is no question surrounding the talent and dynamic that Jimmy added to the Saints football team. The uncertainty is centered on the Saints ability to win football games without him, as his departure leaves the team with no real ‘go-to’ option near the end-zone.
On March 10 of this year, Jimmy was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a first-round pick (which became Stephone Anthony), cap relief and center Max Unger, a 28-year old 2-time Pro Bowler and arguably one of the best centres in the NFL. The Saints may have downgraded the tight end spot, but they upgraded their offensive line with the addition of Unger. The expectation from the Saints is that he will provide the missing anchor by solidifying the offensive line, protecting Brees and developing the run game with Mark Ingram.
Replacing Jimmy Graham as tight end, will be 12th year veteran and full-time starter again, Benjamin Watson. He isn’t going to be Jimmy Graham and he won’t be expected to fill that void. Watson will not be trying to do the things that Jimmy Graham used to do. He won’t be racing up the seams for 30-yard passes or situating himself in front of the goal posts looking for jump-ball touchdowns. Instead, he will be outwitting defenders that he knows he cannot outrun and showing fans that pass protection is equally as important as pass catching. The Saints have struggled in pass protection over the last two seasons. Brees, whose key to success is being able to step into the pocket, was sacked 29 times last year and 37 times the year before, for a career high. The team is counting on both Unger and Watson to help improve this.
The Saints love to put the ball in the air, but Sean Payton’s offense this year is set to feature a strong run game, minimizing the potential impact that Jimmy would have had. Bringing back Mark Ingram, and adding CJ Spiller confirms the emphasis being placed on the run game. There is no shortage of running backs to choose from either, with Marcus Murphy, Tim Hightower and Khiry Robinson joining Ingram and Spiller in that position. A ball control offense will also hopefully put less pressure on a currently inconsistent defense.
Despite this new look on offense, it is safe to say that the passing game isn’t going to be tossed aside. At least not as long as Drew Brees is quarterbacking the team. Brees is known for his ability to get the ball into the end zone regardless of who is on the field – and regardless of who isn’t. The Saints’ first string offense is looking stronger than ever and the talent at the wide receiver position is more than capable of getting the job done. While Jimmy Graham will no longer be present on the field, Marcus Colston, the Saints all-time franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns is not going anywhere. In number two WR position is Brandin Cooks, a speedy second year receiver and emerging star. He led the Saints in receptions last year when he landed himself on the IR in week 11. This year, he was the MVP at camp and demonstrated a pair of ways to make the red zone question a moot point: In game one against Baltimore, he took a screen pass for 28 yards and a touchdown, and then caught a 48-yard pass against the Pats the following week. Cooks can score from anywhere on the field including inside the 20. Brandon Coleman, another second year man has emerged as the number three wide receiver behind Colston and Cooks. He will also be looking to get himself involved in the passing attack and earn trust as a viable red-zone target. He is known for his catch radius and should add further dynamic to the passing game for a triple-C threat. Jimmy who?
The impact of number 80 on the Saints will be missed, but it will not weaken their chances at becoming Superbowl contenders again. Jimmy wasn’t that efficient last year, and much of his season was spent battling injuries. In his final five games, he averaged just 4 catches, slightly over 40 yards per game and only scored one touchdown. His ability to ‘finish’ was becoming highly questionable over the last two seasons. In 2013, he had five 100-yard games and 10 touchdowns in the first 8 games. However, he only reached 100 receiving yards once in his final 10 games and none after week twelve. Moreover, his impact during the playoffs seemed to deteriorate after the 2011 divisional playoffs. During the 2013 playoffs, Jimmy caught three catches for 44 yards in the wild card round against the Eagles and only had one catch for 8 yards in the divisional round against Seattle.
At the end of the day, we need to remember that the Saints won a Superbowl in 2009, and they did it without Jimmy Graham. The names Josh Hill and Ben Watson may not appear to have a memorable echo to them, but neither did Dave Thomas – who by the way was the starting tight end that walked away with the 2009 Superbowl ring. Jimmy Graham wasn’t yet playing for the Saints. In fact, he wasn’t even playing for the NFL. He may have been in Miami for the biggest event in Saints franchise history, but not to celebrate with the team. He was at the university practicing college basketball!