AFTER A 2011 SEASON THAT HE BEGAN AS A MID-ROUND FANTASY PICK AND ENDED AS THE NFL'S CONSENSUS NO. 2 TIGHT END, THE SAINTS' JIMMY GRAHAM REVELS IN HIS STATUS AS A SLEEPER made good. "For the past year and a half I've had people running up to me and thanking me for making them all this money and winning their league," says Graham, who had 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. "I can't walk into a grocery store without 10 people telling me about fantasy. I always tell 'em I'll take care of 'em if they believe in me."
Everyone believes in him now. So much so that the 6' 6", 260-pound Graham is 2012's must-have tight end, over even the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski. Graham is eager to provide the reasons. "We [both] create big matchup problems," he says. "One of the things I do differently than Gronkowski is [the Saints] put me in motion a lot more. That's what [Aaron] Hernandez does for the Patriots—he's the split-out guy. I do everything, and that gives me more opportunities."
Another reason to target the 25-year-old Graham over the record-setting Gronk is that Graham has more room to improve. He was a power forward for four years at Miami and only started playing football as a graduate student at the U in '09. "My rookie [NFL] year, 2010, was the first time I'd seen a pro-style offense," he says. Graham's quarterback, Drew Brees, still sometimes uses hoops terminology to get his point across. "He's always saying things like, 'If I get in trouble, post your guy up—I'll throw it high, and you go get the rebound,'" Graham says. But Graham is now comfortable on the gridiron and focused on the nuances of his position. "I really want to work on my yards after the catch," he says.
In that vein his biggest play of 2011 was, famously, his last. In the Saints' 36--32 divisional-playoff loss against the 49ers he ripped off a 66-yard fourth-quarter catch-and-run (40 yards of that was the run part) to briefly put New Orleans ahead with 1:37 left. "I told Drew I was going to go all the way, and I don't think anybody could've dragged me down from scoring that touchdown," he says.
Graham doesn't think the bounty-related suspension of coach Sean Payton will slow him either. "We have a foundation that he set," he says, "and we still have a quarterback in Drew who is such a leader."
Fantasy owners this season would be wise to follow Brees's lead as far as Graham: Take a shot in his direction and trust that he'll do the rest.