METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Jimmy Graham offered a few reasons why — at age 36 and without having played football last year — he could become a playmaker again for the New Orleans Saints.
“I’m feeling better than ever. I’m still 6-(foot)-7 and I like the red zone,” the veteran tight end said Saturday in his first public comments since rejoining his first NFL team Tuesday. “I definitely came into this with a chip on my shoulder and with something to prove.”
Estimating he weighed as much as 285 pounds in his previous stint with the Saints, when he worked out like “a meathead,” Graham said he has been cycling “hundreds of miles a week” and has changed his workout and eating habits to suit to his age.
“I know I’m definitely in shape,” said Graham, now listed at 265 pounds. “That’s not a problem at all.”
Graham, who has caught at least eight touchdown passes in six of his 12 NFL seasons, was a favorite target of former star quarterback Drew Brees and among the most popular players in New Orleans before the club surprisingly traded him to Seattle in 2015.
Many fans were upset, including general manager Micky Loomis’ own daughter. So, too, was Graham.
“For me, it was pretty shocking,” Graham said. “I thought I would never leave this place. … I woke up to the part of the business that hurt.”
Alluding to a difficult childhood in which he sometimes lived in an orphanage, Graham added, “at first it was very difficult because of my connection with Drew as an ‘older brother’ and all the people in this building.”
“It was family, you know?” Graham continued. “So, for me, a guy who didn’t have a lot of family, it was definitely a difficult time.”
Graham played three seasons with the Seahawks — where he had a major knee injury 2015, but also his last 10-TD season in 2017 — before spending two seasons each at Green Bay and Chicago. He said he spent several of those seasons avoiding interviews because he “didn’t really have a lot to say that was positive.”
In recent years, Graham said, he longed for another chance to play in New Orleans.
“I’ve been trying to come home for a long time,” Graham said, adding that by last season, he didn’t want to play anywhere else. He said several teams reached out to him in 2022, but he told his agent, Jimmy Sexton, “that if I don’t retire as a Saint that I wasn’t going to play again.”
Sitting out last season was “extremely weird, especially after you spend a whole offseason preparing (to play), working out and making sure you’re in shape,” he said. “I think everything happens for a reason and I think it’ll be to my benefit.”
The Saints used a third-round pick to draft Graham in 2010, despite the fact that he’d played just one season of football at Miami after spending four seasons as a basketball power forward for the Hurricanes.
In just his second NFL season, Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns and was selected to his first of five Pro Bowls. He had another banner season in 2013, with 1,215 yards and a career-high 16 TDs receiving.
Around that time, current Saints tight end Foster Moreau was playing for Jesuit High School in New Orleans and had a signed No. 80 Graham Saints jersey in a shadow box in his room.
“Jimmy was a dog, and he still is. Honestly, he runs great,” Moreau said. “So, it’s just such a funny situation. You walk into the locker room and, ‘Oh my God! Jimmy Graham right there.’”
Graham’s production plummeted in his final season with the Bears in 2021, when he caught 14 passes for 167 yards and three TDs in 15 games.
And while the Saints cannot be sure how well he’ll play this season, they expressed confidence he’ll be a leader in the locker room. Graham sounded ready to embrace that role, noting that he, along with 13th-year defensive end Cameron Jordan, are the only players on the roster who’d once been teammates with most of the stars of the Saints’ 2009 championship team.
“I understand what that culture was like and what that looks like, the sacrifice that it takes and the brotherhood – that bond – that needs to be molded,” Graham said.
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