Clash of the tight ends: Graham, Gronk

METAIRIE, La. – Naturally, the quarterbacks will take center stage in Sunday’s matchup between the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. But the tight ends won’t be too far outside of the spotlight. New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and New England’s Rob Gronkowski have helped redefine the tight end position in recent years, emerging as two of the NFL’s biggest weapons.

Gronkowski is a hot topic this week because he’s hoping to make his 2013 debut after recovering from back and forearm injuries. Graham is a hot topic right now because he’s doing things no tight end has ever done before.

Graham’s 548 receiving yards over the past four games are the most by a tight end in any four-game span in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He also has six touchdown catches. And last week, he became the first tight end ever to be named a conference’s offensive player of the month.

Although Graham wasn’t about to declare Sunday’s game as any sort of personal competition between the two 2010 draft classmates, he did say that he’d like to see Gronkowski back in action.

“I mean, I really don’t know how you match skills because we’re obviously both playing against two different defenses,” Graham said. “But if he’s out there, I’ll be excited, because I know how it feels to want to help your team and not to be out there. That’s hard on any player, and you never wish for a player not to be playing. So if he’s out there playing, I’ll be happy for him.”

Although Graham and Gronkowski have never played in a regular-season game together before, they did have a classic duel during the 2011 season, when their battle for the single-season receiving yardage record by a tight end came down to the final minutes of their Week 17 games.

Graham briefly held the mark with 1,310 yards before Gronkowski passed him up to finish with 1,327 yards.

“I’m not sure however many yards he beat me by, but it’s his record. So I’m happy for him,” said Graham, who could shatter that record if he stays anywhere near his current pace of 1,898 yards.

Graham knows he’s not likely to keep producing at that ridiculous rate, though – especially with defenses making him such a heavy focus. Graham said he’s seen a lot of different approaches from defenses this year – from big men bumping him off the line to unique combinations on the back end.

“I’ve just taken what they’re giving me, and if it comes my way, I’ll try to catch it," he said. Graham always insists he’s fine with the increased attention, since he knows defenses will pay for it if they leave the Saints’ other weapons in single coverage.

Graham also said it’s great to have a savvy quarterback like Drew Brees to help him – both on the field and in the film room.

“Normally Drew sees it before they even do it,” Graham said of the various defensive tactics. “He alerts me throughout the week. Or sometimes I come to him with questions like, ‘What was that safety doing?’ He’ll be like, ‘Listen, they’re just making that up and this is what they’re going to do and this is how you need to beat it.’ That’s just the kind of quarterback he is. He sees it all and he helps me to be a better tight end.”