Ninety-four picks were made in the 2010 NFL Draft before the Saints took tight end Jimmy Graham near the end of the third round. We know the rest of the story, and the opening chapters are flattering to team and player.
Graham has become one of the best receiving threats at this position. He has begun the 2013 season on a tear, catching 23 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns. Only 26, Graham’s prime could last several more seasons. In short, a Saints offense with a franchise quarterback (Drew Brees) who’s two years younger than Tom Brady and three years younger than Peyton Manning looks well-positioned both now and in the near future.
It’s easy to say now that Graham should have never lasted that long, that his talent outweighed his lack of football experience. However, the Class of 2010 was loaded with tight end talent, and Graham had just one season of football to his credit. He wouldn’t have been the first potential-laden player not to pan out.
We’ll never know what might have happened if the Saints didn’t take Graham at No. 95. Actually, we can put some of the pieces together. Graham was the fourth-to-last pick of Round Three. The next three selections were non-tradeable compensatory picks that belonged to the Bengals, Titans and Falcons, and none of those three teams probably were inclined to take Graham. The Bengals had taken a tight end (Jermaine Gresham) in Round One of the 2010 draft. The Titans, had Bo Scaife, Jared Cook and Craig Stevens. The Falcons, who had the last pick in the round, might have been the best fit, given their need to eventually replace Tony Gonzalez, but they didn’t draft a tight end that spring, so Graham may not have been on their radar.
This set of circumstances may well have pushed Graham into Round Four. At that point, one team who might have taken a shot on Graham was Miami, as Saints head coach Sean Payton recalled Friday. Payton told reporters he received a call from then-Dolphins executive Bill Parcells about “30 seconds” after the Saints took Graham at No. 95.
“You could tell that that was someone who he had targeted, and that makes you feel good rather than him saying, ‘What did you take him for?’” Payton recalled Friday, according to a transcript of his press conference from the club.
Miami, after trading its pick to San Diego in a deal that landed the Chargers Ryan Mathews, had the No. 126 selection when Round Four began, according to this ESPN recap of draft trades. The Saints, who were defending Super Bowl champions, had pick No. 130 to kick off round four.
In the end, the Dolphins would trade up to No. 119, but not for a tight end. Instead, they took linebacker A.J. Edds.
Overall, four teams took tight ends in Round Four: Baltimore (Dennis Pitta), New England (Aaron Hernandez), Houston (Garrett Graham) and Philadelphia (Clay Harbor).
Again, we’ll never know what might have been if the Saints passed on Jimmy Graham. But their logic in taking him when they did was sound, to say nothing about how the pick turned out. Given Parcells’ interest and the other tight ends coming off the board in the fourth round, the Saints struck at the right time.