- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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Back when Randy Shannon was attempting to talk basketball player Jimmy Graham into trying football, the former University of Miami football coach used a very powerful recruiting pitch.
“He said, 'We are Tight End U,'" Graham said. “He said, 'Look at the guys who’ve been through here -- Greg Olsen, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey. Look where they are now. They’re in the NFL. You can do the same thing.'"
Shannon’s out at Miami, but he turned out to be a prophet. Graham, now with the New Orleans Saints, is doing a lot of the same things Olsen and Shockey are doing for the Carolina Panthers and Winslow is doing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Throw in Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, who didn’t go to Miami but has another common bond with Graham, and you can make a pretty strong case that the NFC South has the league’s best collection of pass-catching tight ends.
"None of those guys are guys you want to end up covering," said New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who played at Miami. "I had to do it in college and thought I was getting away from it and I did for a few years. But now I've got to deal with it in this division and I've got to deal with it every day in practice. It’s not a lot of fun."
It’s not mere coincidence that the NFC South, once a wasteland for tight ends, is suddenly filled with some of the best pass-catchers in the league. And it’s no coincidence that most of them came through the Miami pipeline.
When one team has success with something, other teams tend to follow. And when you’re looking for good tight ends, you look for the guys who come from the best factory.
The Saints started this trend back in 2008 when they traded for Shockey. The next offseason, the Falcons traded for Gonzalez and the Bucs traded for Winslow. In 2010, the Saints used a third-round pick on Graham, who played only one year of college football. He showed them so much potential that the Saints released Shockey after last season.
He didn't stay unemployed for long. Before the lockout started, the Panthers scooped up Shockey. They later made a trade with Chicago to get Olsen. There was some very strong logic behind both moves.
Ron Rivera had just taken over as Carolina’s coach and he brought Rob Chudzinski as his offensive coordinator. Yep, you guessed it. Chudzinski once was the tight ends coach at the University of Miami.
"We’re caught up in the same boat to a degree, but we’re young at a couple positions and we have enough playmakers at tight end that you have to account for both of them," Rivera said.
The Panthers, who pretty much ignored offense in the John Fox days, found their franchise quarterback in Cam Newton. And now they're using their tight ends as frequently as the other teams in the division.
Watch an NFC South game these days and you’ll think you're on the practice field in Coral Gables.
"As soon as I made the decision to play football, they started showing me tapes," Graham said. "I watched tapes of Olsen, Winslow and Shockey. I guess that was pretty much like reading a textbook on how to play tight end. Heck, even when I was getting ready for the draft and my combine workout and pro day, I watched a tape of Olsen's pro day over and over because everybody told me that was like the greatest workout ever for a tight end. It’s pretty amazing because I didn't have a lot of football experience, but I feel like those guys cleared the way for me. I learned a lot by watching tape of them and I think the reputation they created for Miami tight ends also helped me a lot."
But the commonality Graham has with Gonzalez might have played a role. Like Graham, Gonzalez played some college basketball. There are people who say Gonzalez could have played in the NBA, but he chose football. That turned out to be the right move because Gonzalez has been the most prolific pass-catching tight end in the history of the NFL.
It also didn't hurt that San Diego's Antonio Gates, another former basketball player, has probably been the closest thing to Gonzalez.
"I think when someone has success like Antonio Gates had and the league sees that, I think all of us pay attention to another area to scout than just the college football field," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said.
Payton’s having fun drawing up plays for the former basketball player. In Sunday’s victory at Jacksonville, Graham had the best game of his career -- 10 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.
"He’s a guy that is going to give you headaches if he can stretch your team vertically," said Rivera, who will face Graham and the Saints on Sunday. "He has enough athletic ability and route-running ability and good hands to cause you problems underneath. And if you’re not careful and you try to match him up with the wrong guy, he could take advantage of that."
But it’s not just Graham that Rivera and the other NFC South coaches have to worry about. Every time an NFC South team takes the field these days, you have to worry about the tight ends.
They’re a huge part of every passing game. Graham is second in the league with 36 targets. At 35, Gonzalez hasn’t slowed a bit. He has 21 catches for 229 yards and is tied for second among the league’s tight ends with four touchdown catches. Winslow and Olsen each have been targeted 27 times, which ties them for seventh in the league among tight ends, and each have 17 catches. Shockey’s been targeted 19 times and has 11 catches.
"All those guys are like wide receivers playing tight end and they can block too," Vilma said. "As a defense, you have to account for them on every play. It's not really supposed to be like that. But, in our division, that’s the reality now."