Saints’ Jimmy Graham redefines TE production

There are tight ends, and then there is Jimmy Graham — the perfect mismatch drafted, developed and delivered to the NFL by Saints coach Sean Payton.

Graham has become two weapons in one: a tight end by definition and a wide receiver by design. A former power forward for the Miami Hurricanes basketball team, he is big (6-foot-5), thick (265 pounds) and deceptively fast (mid-4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash), posing a coverage problem for cornerbacks and safeties.

Graham presents a schematic nightmare for opponents forced to game-plan around his unique size and talent, including the Chicago Bears at noon Sunday at Soldier Field.

No one knows that better than Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka, the former coach of the Bears and Saints who’s now an analyst with ESPN.

“Jimmy Graham’s got a great coach in Sean Payton, a great quarterback in Drew Brees and he plays in a great system,’’ Ditka said. “So you pick your poison if you’re a defensive coordinator. I think the Bears are going to find that out this weekend. If they have a glaring weakness, it’s their secondary. There is no way they are going to match up with the Saints. That’s going to be a problem unless they can get pressure on Brees, and I don’t see that happening.’’

Graham celebrated his 50th game in the NFL on Monday night with four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns against Miami at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Each score illustrated the problems he presents for a defense.

On his 27-yard touchdown, he out-jumped a smaller cornerback and beat double coverage for a perfectly thrown ball from Brees in the end zone. On his 43-yard touchdown, he slipped behind a slower linebacker on a seam route and ran untouched the final 13 yards into the end zone.

“I don’t know if he’s the best tight end in the NFL right now; there are some good ones out there,’’ Ditka said. “But the sky is the limit for this kid. There’s no telling how good he can be because Sean uses him intelligently and you have somebody like Brees throwing him the football.’’

If his first 50 games are any indication, Graham is headed to stardom with his 242 catches for 3,106 yards and 31 touchdowns, including 27 for 458 yards and six scores this season. With 12 games left in his fourth season, Graham is on pace with Ditka’s first four seasons in Chicago from 1961-64: 248 catches for 3,671 yards and 30 touchdowns.

“He’s a much better athlete than I was,’’ Ditka said. “But I probably blocked a little bit more than Graham does.’’

In three-plus seasons, Graham already is closing in on franchise records for tight ends. He has surpassed the 27 touchdowns caught by Henry Childs from 1974-80 and has his sights set on eclipsing the receptions (267) and receiving yards (3,849) marks established by Hoby Brenner from 1981-93.

“Tight ends nowadays are a little bit different than when we had Hoby Brenner and John Tice,’’ former Saints coach Jim Mora said. “They were very good players and helped us win a lot of games. But Jimmy Graham is special now. He’s like a wide receiver out there.’’

Graham is used both as a tight end and a receiver as far as designing game plans. But when it comes to crafting a new contract for Graham, the focus shifts to the negotiating table, where the player’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, reportedly received a preliminary offer from General Manager Mickey Loomis.

Graham is in the final year of his rookie contract — a four-year deal worth $3.455 million, including a base salary of $1.323 million this season. He was selected in the third round of the 2010 draft, the 95th player taken.

By comparison, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (the 42nd pick in 2010) signed a six-year, $53 million extension in 2012, the richest deal for a tight end in NFL history. That included $16.5 million in guaranteed money.

Other high-paid NFL tight ends include San Francisco’s Vernon Davis ($23 million guaranteed), San Diego’s Antonio Gates ($20.4 million guaranteed), St. Louis’ Jared Cook ($19 million guaranteed), Jacksonville’s Mercedes Lewis ($19 million guaranteed) and Seattle’s Zach Miller ($17 million guaranteed).

Keep in mind, receivers and tight ends are paid differently. The 2013 franchise tag for the five highest-paid tight ends was $6 million; it was $10 million for the five highest-paid receivers.

“Is he worth as much as Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, or Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson and receivers like that?” Mora said. “That’s not for me to say. But I think Jimmy Graham is invaluable to that offense. They would not be as good or as prolific if he weren’t on their team.’’

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson has witnessed Graham’s rapid development as a football player. In 2009, Graham’s only season of college football, Johnson was an assistant coach at Miami. In 2010, he was Payton’s wide receivers coach during Graham’s rookie season.

“If I’m Jimmy’s agent, the argument for me is not, ‘Do you pay him as a wide receiver or as a tight end?’ ” Johnson said. “Jimmy is a whole different animal, a freak. The argument is how can we get him paid like the second-best player on the Saints, behind Drew Brees.

“To me, he’s different than Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson and ‘Megatron.’ Let’s not compare him to those wide receivers. But don’t compare him to Gronkowski, either, because I don’t see Gronk lining up in the middle of the field and beating DBs. Jimmy is an impact player, so you got to pay him like an impact player.’’