Four years into what has already been a remarkably productive career, Jimmy Graham has received a fresh four-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. And although it is now clearly debatable whether or not he’s truly a tight end, we’re already in the mood to start forecasting Graham’s long-term chances of making a run at the all-time records Tony Gonzalez holds at that position.
Gonzalez walked away this offseason with all-time tight end highs in receptions (1,325), receiving yards (15,127) and touchdowns (111).
But at the age of 27 Graham already has two of the most prolific seasons in the history of the position under his belt. He’s had at least 1,215 yards twice, yet only four other tight ends have hit that mark once. He’s also had at least 85 catches three times. That’s something only 10 other tight ends have done at least once.
His rookie season should be discounted since he wasn’t a regular starter, but the last three years, Graham has averaged 5.7 catches, 74.6 yards and 0.77 touchdowns per game. Take away Gonzalez’s rookie campaign and he averaged 5.1 catches, 58.1 yards and 0.43 touchdowns per game. It isn’t even close.
But a pace is just that — a pace. And there’s a ridiculous amount of time left for Graham to completely fall off of his pace. Even if he stays healthy, he’d need to last a lot longer than most players usually do. Gonzalez wasn’t just productive, but he sustained it consistently for 17 seasons, missing only two games along the way.
Graham has a natural disadvantage in that area because he’s entering his fifth season two and a half years older than Gonzalez was at the same point. Gonzalez was a productive 37-year-old, which makes him an anomaly. Can Graham be a productive 39-year-old?
The only way Graham can avoid having to last 17-plus years is if he can maintain his current torrid pace for a slightly shorter amount of time. Precedents indicate that’ll be close to impossible, because players usually wear down in their 30s. And let’s not forget that, eventually, Graham won’t be catching passes from future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
But even if we suspend our disbelief for a moment and pretend that Graham can continue to do what he’s done the last three years for an indefinite period of time, it’ll be a while before he reaches Gonzalez’s range.
If Graham were to continue to average 90 catches a season, it would take him 11.3 years to hit Gonzalez’s mark of 1,325. In other words, he’d do it in October of the 2025 season, in his 16th year at the age of 38.
If he were to continue to average 1,169 yards a season, it would take him 9.6 years to hit Gonzalez’s mark of 15,127. In other words, he’d do it in November of the 2023 season, in his 14th year at the age of 36.
And if he were to continue to average 12 touchdowns a season, it would take him 5.8 years to hit Gonzalez’s mark of 111. In other words, he’d do it in December of the 2019 season, in his 10th year at the age of 33.
That last one is quite realistic, which isn’t surprising considering that Graham only needs nine touchdowns this year to move into the top 10 on the all-time tight end touchdown receptions list. But the odds of him staying healthy enough and remaining productive enough to break Gonzalez’s records for catches and yards aren’t good.
If there’s an active tight end who can do it, it’s definitely Graham. All we’re saying is Gonzalez has no reason to be nervous just yet.