Tight ends at forefront of revolution

Jimmy Graham's Unlikely Path (7:24)

Rachel Nichols profiles Saints TE Jimmy Graham and his unlikely path to the NFL. (7:24)

They all eyed the lanky kid with the close-cropped red hair closely, uncertain of what to make of his presence at the NFL combine. Jimmy Graham sensed as much as he stepped onto the scale for his official weighing and again when he waited for his chance to bench-press with the other tight end prospects. Studs like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jermaine Gresham had been following each other's careers since their high school days. Graham, on the other hand, was just a former basketball player at the University of Miami, a raw talent hoping to turn one season of college football into an instant lottery ticket.

That was before the players started on-field testing at Lucas Oil Stadium. It wasn't just that Graham -- 6-foot-6, and 260 pounds -- soared 38.5 inches on his vertical jump or raced to a 4.56-second time in the 40-yard dash despite a sprained ankle. It also wasn't the tenacity he displayed while sprinting through the pass-catching drill known as "The Gauntlet," a test that required him to run sideline to sideline while snagging balls from quarterbacks. It was Graham's relentlessness that turned heads. Gresham was so impressed that he pulled Graham aside at one point and asked, "Where did you come from?"

That question is still being raised two years later -- and not just about Graham. Sure, he's one the hottest tight ends in the business now that he plays for the New Orleans Saints, but he's also the face of an unprecedented revolution. Call it the golden age for a position that has put only eight players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Players like Graham no longer are treated like the third- or fourth-best options in the passing game. In today's NFL, you don't have a complete offense without a playmaking tight end.

The numbers alone are staggering. Graham ranks second in the NFL with 80 receptions to go along with 1,101 yards. Gronkowski just set a league record for touchdown catches by a tight end (15), and he has combined with Hernandez to produce 130 receptions through 13 games in New England. Overall, 18 tight ends are on pace to have at least 50 catches, and seven are leading their teams in receiving.

"There's definitely been an evolution at that position since I came in," said Falcons Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, who ranks second in NFL history with 1,142 receptions in 15 seasons. "Now it seems like everybody has a 6-5 guy who can make plays."

"It definitely drives you," said Graham when asked about the presence of so many productive tight ends in the game. "Just look at the year when I was drafted [2010]. It might be the best draft class ever for tight ends. The Patriots took two guys [Gronkowski and Hernandez]. The Ravens got two guys [Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta]. You had Gresham going to Cincinnati. It's kind of crazy. But it also makes you want to work harder because you're paying attention to what all those other guys are doing."

Because the NFL is the ultimate copycat league, it's not surprising that so many teams have turned to tight ends for major results. Many came into the NFL with the athletic ability to have an immediate impact as a receiver. Others have benefited from the proliferation of Cover 2 defenses, the kind of schemes that can be exploited by big targets who are capable of dominating the middle of the field. More than anything, coaches have kept things simple. As Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said, "A lot of quarterbacks are dropping back and seeing a big guy [covered by] a little guy so they're just throwing the ball there."

That's how it works in New Orleans, where quarterback Drew Brees has the option to check out of plays if he likes the matchup on his tight end.

"Drew always tells me that he doesn't care who's on me," Graham said. "He's going to throw it where only I can get it."

Matchup nightmares

Like Graham,Gronkowski (6-6, 265 pounds) and Hernandez ( 6-1, 245 pounds) are versatile enough that the Patriots move them all over their formations to create advantages. They've lined up in the slot, out wide, in tight and at fullback.

"If we're in together, we know we can run the ball," Hernandez said. "But we're also bigger than wide receivers, so it's hard for defensive backs to cover us and it's tough for linebackers to keep up. It just puts the defense at a disadvantage."

"You really can't underestimate what a good tight end means to a quarterback," said Houston Texans quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. "From a vision standpoint, they're going to show up in your vision more and they're going to be working against less talented people in coverage. When you're throwing to a tight end, you're likely to see more separation from a defender than you'll see when a receiver goes against a cornerback."

The overall athleticism of today's tight ends also makes a huge difference. Knapp talked about a reception his star tight end, Owen Daniels, recently made late in a key win, when Daniels plucked a low-thrown ball near his ankles and didn't lose stride. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome -- a Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns -- marveled earlier this season at how easily Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley snared a pass over Saints strong safety Roman Harper, despite Harper's perfect position. Graham and Gronkowski have become so dynamic that their route running is as precise as some wideouts'. "What's really scary about some of these guys," Cameron said, "is that they're going out and beating cornerbacks now."

The tight end position has evolved so much that even previous criteria for success don't carry as much weight as they once did. Though players at the position are still expected to block well enough to help on run plays, their primary value comes when offenses pass. For example, Daniels had never had much reason to block defensive ends who outweighed him by as much as 40 pounds before entering the NFL in 2006. He'd been a quarterback and receiver in college and it wasn't until he was lining up across from 6-6, 283-pound defensive end Mario Williams in his first training camp that he realized the challenge he was facing.

But the more Daniels has played, the more the league has become so pass-happy that teams now throw on 59 percent of their overall possessions. "I really think some teams are more willing to wait on a guy to come around in the run game," Daniels said. "They're saying if he can do all right in that area, we'll take him. What they really need him to do is go downfield and make plays."

'Like basketball on grass'

Most people believe the entire shift in the use of the tight end happened about seven to eight years ago. At that point, the league had two clear superstars at the position -- Gonzalez and San Diego's Antonio Gates -- and a handful of other players who displayed flashes of brilliance. Before long, future Pro Bowlers such as Indianapolis' Dallas Clark and Dallas' Jason Witten appeared on the scene, along with first-round picks such as Pittsburgh's Heath Miller and San Francisco's Vernon Davis. What also changed the culture was the growth of the spread offense in college. The more that system pervaded the collegiate level, the more football became, in the words of Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, "like basketball on grass."

Graham remembers people wondering why he wasn't playing football instead of basketball at Miami. School president Donna Shalala once approached him early in his Hurricanes career about the possibility. When Graham met former NFL star and Miami alum Bernie Kosar toward the end of his basketball career, Kosar also mentioned how he'd watch Graham play basketball with a physical approach that could be valuable on the gridiron. "When I went into a [basketball] game, I was either dunking on somebody or knocking them around," Graham said. "I fouled out a lot."

What Graham couldn't know early in his career was how his exposure to basketball was shaping his potential in football. He had fluid body control, nimble feet and an undeniable comfort with catching balls in traffic.

"He just has a great feel for how to position himself between himself and the defender before going up to get the ball," said Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. "But along with his size, speed, hands and route running, people didn't see the drive in Jimmy. He wanted to be great."

Kosar saw it. Once Graham decided to play football after his basketball eligibility expired, Kosar drove 90 minutes each day to throw passes to Graham and educate him on strategy. It still took awhile for Graham to find his confidence -- "I didn't feel good about things until late in my last year [at Miami], when I helped the team win a couple games," he said -- but the player couldn't know what type of league he was entering. He'd grown up admiring Tony Gonzalez. Now the NFL was looking for a bunch of players with similar attributes.

After using a second-round pick to select Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 draft, the Patriots took Hernandez in the fourth round. Gronkowski joked that the two players "grew up hating each other" because they were the two best high school tight ends in the country, but they quickly saw each other's value. They bonded in the weight room, on the practice fields and shared insights on how to make each other better. "Aaron's taught me how to get in and out of routes, how to juke and how to attack plays," Gronkowski said.

Graham found the easiest way for him to improve as a rookie was to heed the advice of admirers such as Brees. Though Graham was only a third-round pick, Brees immediately saw the possibilities in him. He had been with the San Diego Chargers when Gates -- another former college basketball player who quickly found success in the league -- blew up. "Drew used to always tell me that I reminded him of Gates," Graham said. "He'd say a lot of big guys can't do what I can."

Graham didn't make much noise as a rookie, catching 31 passes, but he used the offseason to hone his skills. Before the lockout began, Graham grabbed as much film as possible, including tapes of Saints games and cut-ups of Gonzalez. He also worked out with Brees for seven weeks to build a comfort level. What the Saints saw in Graham was the same potential other teams saw in their tight ends. So many defenses had been built to neutralize wide receivers on the outside -- or stifle the running game -- that it seemed impossible for them to handle weapons that were about to be thrown at them from the tight end position.

The evolution of talent at the position already has made slower, run-stuffing safeties such as former Cowboys Pro Bowler Roy Williams obsolete. "It used to be that you could run a 4.7 [40-yard dash] and be fine in this league," said New York Giants safety Deon Grant. "Now you better run a 4.5 to keep up with these guys."

Added Ravens tight end Ed Dickson: "So many guys playing today have the body control, the footwork and soft hands. Some of them have basketball backgrounds and guys like myself ran track. But basketball really helps. The more you play in space [early in your career], the more you find out who can really play at his level."

The other harsh reality for NFL defenses is that this trend isn't likely to change soon. There are too many tight ends prospering at a time when defensive backs and linebackers are getting smaller to deal with the speed of the game. As Cameron also noted, "A lot of these guys who are playing basketball are seeing things differently. They're realizing there are more opportunities in college and the NFL than there are in the NBA."

Graham is the perfect example of that. He still hears opponents refer to him as a basketball player playing football, a veiled insult that is meant to suggest he's soft. What those critics don't realize is Graham is playing with an oversized chip on his shoulder. He's already done enough to prove that a kid who came into the league with 17 receptions in college can make a name for himself at this level.

In fact, Graham sought out Gonzalez after a game against the Falcons earlier this season just to express his desire to follow in the future Hall of Famer's footsteps.

"I told him that I'm always studying him because if I can be half the player he was, I'll be a happy man," Graham said. "If it wasn't for guys like him, none of us would be doing the things we're doing today."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.