FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Jimmy Graham leaps for high passes. Rob Gronkowski runs over defenders. Aaron Hernandez swerves around them.
Three tight ends with three different styles — all on the same field.
“I’m not so sure that this era in football right now doesn’t have some of the best tight ends in the history of the game,” New Orleans interim coach Joe Vitt said Wednesday, “and I think you’ve seen some of the best on this field the last couple of days.”
The Saints and New England Patriots held two days of joint practices before they meet in a preseason game on Thursday.
There wasn’t much hitting and the tight ends didn’t run at full speed after making catches. But the talent of the trio of third-year tight ends was obvious.
“It’s not one here in New England, it’s two,” Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said after Tuesday’s session. “They’re both really good. I mean, Hernandez, we had trouble covering him out there.”
All three tight ends were drafted in 2010 — Gronkowski in the second round, Graham in the third and Hernandez in the fourth.
All had decent rookie seasons. But they all emerged last year as stars — Gronkowski with NFL records for a tight end at 1,327 yards receiving and 17 touchdown catches, Graham with a club-record 99 catches and 1,310 yards receiving, and Hernandez with 79 receptions.
So who’s better? Would Graham choose himself over the Patriots’ pair?
“Of course I would,” he said Tuesday without hesitation or seeming arrogant. “I’m young and the thing about me (is), I’ve been playing for three years. And I know I’m getting better.”
Graham played basketball at Miami for four seasons, and so he didn’t get around to football until his final year with the Hurricanes. He played 13 games but started only one and caught just 17 passes.
He also blocked 104 shots in basketball with a jumping ability that now launches his 6-foot-7 frame high over defensive backs. Gronkowski watches film of Graham, trying to pick up tips.
“His speed, his separation and he’s good at the long ball, how he goes up and grabs it in the air,” Gronkowski said. “He used to be a basketball player so it’s kind of cool to see him go up. He grabs the ball at the highest point and that’s something you always want to do when the ball’s coming at you.”
In college, Gronkowski played 22 games at Arizona and set school career records for tight ends of 75 catches and 1,197 yards receiving. In the pros, he scored 20 touchdowns quicker than any tight end, needing just 26 games. Mike Ditka held the old record of 31.
The tight ends are major options for quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Gronkowski and Graham are “two totally different animals,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. Graham “is more of a slider and he comes out of the break and he’s just like, ‘Drew, throw it up.’ He’s more of a rebounder. ‘I’m going to get it.’ He’s more athletic.
“Then you’ve got Gronk, who’s just a big guy and he’s a big target, a little body action. And, of course, Tom is putting it right on him, and Gronk makes his money after the catch.”
Hernandez had 111 catches in 40 games at Florida. In two seasons with the Patriots, he already has 124 receptions for 13 touchdowns. Is he different from the other two? Well, he’s certainly more elusive than Gronkowski and Graham, with skills of a tall wide receiver.
“I approach it with speed and quickness,” Hernandez said, “and (Gronkowski) approaches it with just being big and physical.”
When the Patriots have both tight ends on the field, along with wide receiver Wes Welker, defenses face a difficult challenge.
“We only have 11 (players) and they have 11. You can only double so many guys,” Spagnuolo said, “so you’ve got to pick your spots.”
Gronkowski doesn’t feel like he’s competing with Graham. But Graham said there is a bit of that for him, especially since they had similar statistics last season. Also, the media — frequently comparing them — adds to that as well.
“It’s a friendly competition,” Graham said.
In games, the three tight ends face much fiercer competition against defenders trying to come up with ways to control them.
“You’d have to be really big, fast and athletic to cover one of those guys,” Brees said. “Maybe the only guys who could cover them are each other.”
Said Vitt: “We like our guy and the guys they’ve got keep me up at night trying to defend them.”
It’s up to Vitt, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and their staffs to devise plans to keep Gronkowski, Hernandez and Graham in check.
“They can run. They can catch. They can run routes. They can block,” Vitt said. “They can get to the edge and kill you. They can catch the deep ball. They catch outside the framework of the body.”
“They’re all good dancers, they’re good cooks,” he added with a smile, “and they love kids.”
NOTES: Brees and several teammates went to Fenway Park for Wednesday afternoon’s game, won by the Texas Rangers 10-9 over the Boston Red Sox. He posted a picture to his Twitter account showing him pointing to the No. 9 on the right field facade representing Ted Williams’ retired number. Brees also wears No. 9. … Hernandez said that “with all the new rules” restricting practices to one a day and requiring days off, “I love” training camp. “Two practices beats up on your body. But Bill, regardless, is going to find a way to beat up on us.” … The Patriots signed OL Kyle Hill, a rookie free agent from Duke.