- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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One is a 6-foot-7 former basketball player who can go up and catch the highest of passes. The other is a 6-foot-6, 265-pound beast with very strong hands and a knack for running through defenders. Both are elite and it's hard to go wrong with either player.
The NFL's two best tight ends shared the practice field Tuesday, as the New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints for a joint scrimmage. There has been a ton of debate this offseason over who is better. According to a recent player survey by the NFL Network, Graham edged Gronkowski in the voting.
But both tight ends showed in Tuesday's practice why they can make a strong case for the No. 1 spot. Gronkowski caught two red zone touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills, and Graham also caught a touchdown in the same drill and did his trademark slam dunk between the goalposts.
Graham was asked the highly-debatable question after the joint practice, and, naturally, picked himself.
“Of course I would,” said a confident Graham, who caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. “I’m young and the thing about me is I’ve been playing three years and I know I’m getting better. I’m focused on getting better. I know my weaknesses and I know where I need to improve."
Gronkowski said he wasn’t thinking about a one-on-one competition with Graham this week. The Patriots will practice against the Saints twice before playing in Thursday's preseason game at Gillette Stadium.
“There’s really no competition [going on],” said Gronkowski, who caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011. “He’s a great player, and that’s why every team has a position of tight end. He’s a great guy that you can put the film on and seeing what he’s doing to get open. He’s doing a great job at it and you can learn from other tight ends in the league.”
Gronkowski said he trained with Graham two years ago in Florida before the NFL combine. At the time, both players had major question marks that hurt their draft stock. Gronkowski had a back injury that dropped him to the second round to New England. Graham was a basketball player at the University of Miami with just one year of collegiate football experience. He dropped to the third round. Drafting these tight ends turned out to be the smartest moves each team has made in recent years.
Both tight ends are very close by comparison. The Graham supporters would say he's more athletic and can get vertical better than Gronkowski. The Gronkowski supporters would say he's a significantly better run-blocker than Graham and a more complete tight end. "Gronk" also catches more touchdowns.
Even watching both players practice up close together on Tuesday, it's a really difficult choice.
"It's two totally different animals. I hate to call them animals, but it is what it is,” Saints safety Roman Harper said laughing.
Harper continued to break down each player.
“I think Jimmy is just more of a strider, he's going to be faster than Gronk, but he's more of a strider and he comes out of the break and he's just like, 'Drew throw it up It's more of a rebound, I'm going to get it.' So he's going to be more athletic,” Harper said. “Then you've got Gronk, who is just a big guy and he's a big target, and he's going [to give] a little body action, and of course Tom [Brady] was putting it right on him. Gronk makes his money after the catch. If you look at him, that's where he makes all of his money.”
Don’t forget about the Patriots’ second tight end: Aaron Hernandez. He's also a top-five player at the position. Hernandez caught 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.
The offensive talent in Foxborough this week is immense, especially when you have three of the top five tight ends sharing the same practice field. Graham said he surely will pick up a few pointers from his tight-end peers before leaving Foxborough.
“I watch a lot of film on Hernandez and Gronkowski,” Graham said. “The way [Gronkowski] uses his body, and the way Hernandez is a technician in his routes. I try to take as much as I can from the both of them and apply it to my game.”