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Saints, Patriots bring 3 top TEs to same field

Associated Press Published: August 8, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Jimmy Graham leaps for high passes. Rob Gronkowski runs over defenders. Aaron Hernandez swerves around them.

Three tight ends with three different styles — all on the same field.

"I'm not so sure that this era in football right now doesn't have some of the best tight ends in the history of the game," New Orleans interim coach Joe Vitt said Wednesday, "and I think you've seen some of the best on this field the last couple of days."

The Saints and New England Patriots held two days of joint practices before they meet in a preseason game on Thursday.

There wasn't much hitting and the tight ends didn't run at full speed after making catches. But the talent of the trio of third-year tight ends was obvious.

"It's not one here in New England, it's two," Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said after Tuesday's session. "They're both really good. I mean, Hernandez, we had trouble covering him out there."

All three tight ends were drafted in 2010 — Gronkowski in the second round, Graham in the third and Hernandez in the fourth.

All had decent rookie seasons. But they all emerged last year as stars — Gronkowski with NFL records for a tight end at 1,327 yards receiving and 17 touchdown catches, Graham with a club record 99 catches and 1,310 yards receiving, and Hernandez with 79 receptions.

So who's better? Would Graham choose himself over the Patriots' pair?

"Of course I would," he said Tuesday without hesitation or seeming arrogant. "I'm young and the thing about me (is), I've been playing for three years. And I know I'm getting better."

Graham played basketball at Miami for four seasons, and so he didn't get around to football until his final year with the Hurricanes. He played 13 games but started only one and caught just 17 passes.

He also blocked 104 shots in basketball with a jumping ability that now launches his 6-foot-7 frame high over defensive backs. Gronkowski watches film of Graham, trying to pick up tips.

"His speed, his separation and he's good at the long ball, how he goes up and grabs it in the air," Gronkowski said. "He used to be a basketball player so it's kind of cool to see him go up. He grabs the ball at the highest point and that's something you always want to do when the ball's coming at you."

In college, Gronkowski played 22 games at Arizona and set school career records for tight ends of 75 catches and 1,197 yards receiving. In the pros, he scored 20 touchdowns quicker than any tight end, needing just 26 games. Mike Ditka held the old record of 31.

The tight ends are major options for quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

Gronkowski and Graham are "two totally different animals," Saints safety Roman Harper said. Graham "is more of a slider and he comes out of the break and he's just like, 'Drew, throw it up.' He's more of a rebounder. 'I'm going to get it.' He's more athletic.

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