Jimmy Graham now second to none

NEW ORLEANS -- Curtis Lofton knows the drill. It is the same in practice as it is in games. Jimmy Graham soars. Jimmy Graham catches. Jimmy Graham scores.

And Jimmy Graham dunks.

In practice, no New Orleans Saints defender wants to be on the receiving end of that. But just like the Saints' first four opponents this season have found out, Graham has evolved into the biggest matchup nightmare in the NFL. He is the best tight end in a league of good ones. No one can stop him.

At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Graham is too big and too physical for a cornerback to cover. Possessing 4.5 speed, Graham is too quick for a linebacker to contain.

Give him time and Graham will beat you, because he will catch everything Drew Brees throws his way. Practice. Games. It is all the same.

"The thing about Jimmy is he comes to work every single day," Lofton said. "Every day is a game for Jimmy. As a defensive guy, it makes you that much better, because you don't want Jimmy flexing on you. You don't want him dunking. You don't want him doing all the extra stuff. It challenges you to do all the extra stuff."

A defender must, because Jimmy Graham will.

This season, Graham leads all tight ends with 458 receiving yards, an average of 114.5 per game, and eight catches of 20 or more yards. Among tight ends with at least eight receptions, Graham's average of 17.0 yards per catch is the highest in the NFL.

Only one wide receiver, Atlanta's Julio Jones, is averaging more receiving yards per game (120.2 for Jones), and Graham's six receiving touchdowns are tied with Denver wide receiver Wes Welker for the most in the league.

New England's Rob Gronkowski holds the single-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and receiving touchdowns (17) by a tight end, but this season Graham is on pace for 108 catches, 1,832 yards and 24 touchdowns. Gronkowski, who narrowly edged Graham for the receiving yards record in 2011, has yet to take the field.

"This year I think he felt like, man, this is his moment and a great opportunity for him," Brees said of Graham. "He's making the most of it."

Graham has surpassed Gronkowski as the best tight end in football because, unlike Gronkowski, he isn't injury prone and is reliable. Graham isn't the blocker that Gronkowski is, but in the modern-era NFL, that doesn't matter like it once did. Because of his size, Gronkowski is also a matchup nightmare for defenses, but only if he is on the field.

Graham is better than San Diego's Antonio Gates, an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, because he is more athletic than Gates ever was. Like Graham, Gates was a basketball power forward in college for whom football came second. Throughout his 11-year career, Gates has had a feel for coverage and a knack for getting open, but Graham is by far the superior athlete, with a longer reach and an ability to outjump defenders and wrestle away the ball.

Graham is better than Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, a 13-time Pro Bowler and 10-time All-Pro, because he is quicker after the catch and, again, the superior athlete. Gonzalez is a future Hall of Famer because of his consistency and reliability over the course of his 17-year career, but Graham is on another level when it comes to making the difficult catch.

Graham has better speed than San Francisco's Vernon Davis. He is able to get better separation than Dallas' Jason Witten. And Graham has a quarterback who understands better than most how to get Graham the ball.

On Monday night, Miami primarily tried defending Graham with a cornerback and safety help. Brees targeted Graham only four times -- and just once in the first half -- but Graham caught all four passes.

The first came midway through the second quarter. Lined up in the slot on the left side against rookie cornerback Jamar Taylor, Graham ran an out pattern and accelerated past Taylor. Brees threw the ball high to Graham in the end zone, and Graham caught the pass with two hands over his head before safety Chris Clemons or cornerback Brent Grimes could help.

Graham's second reception also was for a touchdown. Lined up in the slot on the right side, Graham beat Clemons down the seam and Brees perfectly led Graham, who made the catch at the 12-yard line and dragged Clemons into the end zone to give New Orleans a 35-10 lead midway through the third quarter.

Graham finished with four catches for 100 yards.

Lofton had seen it all before. Asked if there is an effective way to defend Graham, Lofton said no.

"I don't think so," Lofton said. "I really don't think so, not with Drew Brees being the quarterback. You put a corner on him, he's 6-7 and he's going to outjump him. You try to put a linebacker on him, and he'll outrun him. He's just a mismatch for a lot of defenses."

Graham is that. He's also a physical freak who is the best tight end in football.