Jimmy Graham’s status still up in the air as Saints host Bills

In the first five games of this season, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham had 92 more receiving yards than the No. 2 man at his position, Benjamin Watson, got in all of 2012. Graham’s six touchdowns during that stretch were as many as Watson has scored since the start of 2011.

But neither Watson nor the rest of his team are panicking that Graham, the team’s most productive pass catcher, missed two practices this week and was limited in a third after hurting his foot in the Saints’ 30-27 loss at New England on Oct. 13, putting the star tight end’s status in question for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills (3-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Believe it or not, the Saints (5-1) have had to carry on without Graham before — and they’ve fared well enough.

“Everybody on this team is accountable ... whether (they have) a small role or a large role or a role that can change on any given Sunday,” Watson said. “In this game, people go down all the time. ... Everyone has to be ready and available.”

Saints fans’ dread could be sensed more than 1,500 miles away in Foxborough, Mass., when Graham came up limping after Drew Brees threw an interception early in the fourth quarter of New Orleans’ defeat to the Patriots. Graham, for whom the pass was intended, later returned for a bit, but he was helped to the locker room toward the end of the game after going without a catch.

There was hope among Who Dats that Graham — who’s tops on the Saints with 37 catches for 593 yards and a half-dozen scores and recently became the first tight end to win a player of the month award from the NFL — would emerge from the Week 7 bye at full strength. But that optimism evaporated when he sat out team drills Wednesday and Thursday.

New Orleans indeed may be without a prized offensive weapon as they prepare to face a fierce Bills defense that leads the NFL in interceptions (12) and is tied for fourth in sacks with 24. But, for a number of reasons, the Saints aren’t in hysterics.

They play at home, where coach Sean Payton hasn’t lost since Jan. 2, 2011. They’ve also had to compete without Graham on occasion since using a third-round pick to draft him in 2010.

The first time that happened was when Graham had an ankle injury in Week 1 of 2010, and the Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings at the Superdome. Graham would subsequently miss the playoff game New Orleans dropped at Seattle that season because of an injured ankle, but he had not yet blossomed into the force he is today.

He was much closer to his current state when he had a hurt ankle and sat out the second regular-season game of his career, the Saints’ Week 7 visit to Tampa Bay last year.

New Orleans won 35-28. Wide receiver Lance Moore picked up the slack that day and caught nine passes for 121 yards, both season highs for him up to that point.

And the Saints are confident someone will make out like Moore did that day if Graham is a scratch for the Bills game.

It could be Watson, with whom Brees has connected eight times for 110 yards and a TD this year. It could be the third tight end on the depth chart, rookie Josh Hill, though Payton refused to delve into details about how either Watson’s or Hill’s roles could expand if Graham is out or slowed.

“They are two players that we are very comfortable with,” Payton said. “They have done a good job of handling the work ... and we will see what (the future) brings.”

Hill hasn’t made a single catch, but that won’t stop Brees from turning to him. On third-and-goal against New England, Brees threw a 3-yard TD to second-year running back Travaris Cadet, who was in for his first snap of the season.

Like Cadet, rookie running back Khiry Robinson (26 carries for 137 yards) and first-year receiver Kenny Stills (10 catches for 198 yards) also scored their first career TDs against New England. The Patriots were focused on shutting down Graham and receiver Marques Colston, who had one reception for 11 yards.

But the list of viable targets for Brees in light of Graham’s possible absence is lengthy.

Running back Darren Sproles (484 combined rushing and receiving yards and two TDs), running back Pierre Thomas (383 rushing/receiving yards and two TDs) and Colston (24 catches for 324 yards and a TD) aren’t going to be overlooked anytime soon. And neither is Moore, who appeared to be healed after missing three games with a hand injury and is eager to add to the four catches for 44 yards he has this year.

“They’ve done such a great job of surrounding Drew with so many guys that can do many different things that, in the case that Jimmy misses a game or I miss a couple of games, other guys are stepping up and making plays,” Moore said. “That’s the culture that we’ve had here, and that’s the culture I’m sure they’ll continue to have long after we’re all gone.”

Bills coach Doug Marrone, New Orleans’ offensive coordinator from 2006-08, won’t dispute that.

“That team,” he said, “will be ready to go.”