FOXBORO (CBS) — The quarterback is always the biggest star of a football team, so it’s no surprise that much of the focus on Tuesday afternoon’s joint practice between the Patriots and Saints was placed on Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The two are both veterans with more than a decade in the league, they both hold several all-time passing records, and it would surprise very few folks to see busts of both in Canton one day.
While those two are the established superstars, the two young, all-world tight ends on the Patriots and Saints are carving out a similar career path.
Rob Gronkowski is 23 years old, stands 6-foot-6, weighs 265 pounds and caught 99 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns last season (both records for tight ends).
Jimmy Graham is 26 years old, stands 6-foot-7, weighs 260 pounds and caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
With Gronkowski’s Patriots hosting Graham’s Saints for joint practices this week leading up to Thursday night’s preseason game at Gillette Stadium, the two were quick to gush about each other’s skills.
“There’s definitely a little completion there,” Graham told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “Me and him have similar numbers. It seems like every writer and every media outlet compares us somehow, but really the competition is a friendly competition and is about getting each of our teams ready to play.”
Gronkowski said that there are certain things Graham does well that he can learn from to improve his own game.
“Jimmy Graham is a great tight end and just watching him, what he does, how he gets open. You can always use aspects of other people’s games and bring them in to your game to help you out,” Gronkowski said. “His speed, his separation definitely, he’s good at the long ball, how he goes up and grabs it in the air. 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 is coming at you.”
Graham said he can learn not only from Gronkowski but also from the Patriots’ second tight end threat, Aaron Hernandez.
“Gronkowski in the red zone, the way he uses his body and size, me and him are a similar size,” Graham said when asked what he can learn from his Patriots counterparts. “Hernandez, the way he runs his routes. He’s a technician in his routes. He really gets guys off-balance with some quick false movements. Those are some things I’m trying to add to my game.”
While some fans and media members may argue that Gronkowski is better than Graham, or vice versa, the fact is that any coach in the league would gladly add either player to his roster.
Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who will man the sidelines in place of the suspended Sean Payton this season, said he certainly sees plenty of similarities among the tight ends.
“We like our guys and the guys they have keep me up at night trying to defend them. They’re a good group,” Vitt said. “They can run, they can catch, they can run routes, they can block, they can get to the edge and kill you, they can catch the deep ball, they can catch outside of the framework of their body, they’re all good dancers, they’re good cooks and they love kids.”
Still, while both Vitt and Bill Belichick are happy with their own players, the debate likely won’t end any time soon. Even Graham himself is expecting that.
“People will compare us the next 10 years of our lives and of our careers, where there will be a better assessment,” Graham said. “I think we’ll be in competition for the next ten years, because of the type of players we are.”