METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Jimmy Graham spiked the ball ferociously after a touchdown catch during a recent training camp practice, drawing a combination of cheers and laughter from the fans behind the end zone.
The celebration seemed to be Graham's way of saying he was really starting to understand how to play in the NFL, and having fun doing it.
``We're just competitive and I knew they were going to watch it later on film, so it's funny,'' Graham said of the spike, which came after he made leaping catch in a crowd of defenders, much like the way he grabbed rebounds when he was a college basketball power forward.
I am 10 times better than I was last year at this point,'' Graham continued.But for me it's still (about) working hard and just keep taking those baby steps.''
Graham, who came from humble beginnings in North Carolina that included being picked on while living in a group home for children and being told by relatives that he'd ``amount to nothing,'' leans toward modesty when talking about himself.
Yet, while Graham talks about ``baby steps,'' the Saints see the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end making significant strides toward becoming one of the more fearsome components of their already explosive offense.
Some of that is based on his performance in the latter part of 2010, when quarterback Drew Brees began targeting him more.
Graham wound up starting five games, finishing with 31 catches for 356 yards, including one reception as long as 52 yards, and five touchdowns.
It's easy to spot just raw talent, which he obviously (has),'' Brees said.He wants to be great and he is willing to work to do that. That is everything that you would want in a guy. He listens. ... He is starting to understand how important technique and fundamentals are.''
After playing four seasons of basketball at Miami, Graham played one season of football with the Hurricanes. He caught 17 passes for 213 yards and five touchdowns.
The Saints decided they had seen enough to take Graham in the third round of the 2010 draft, and hope that Brees eventually would develop the same chemistry with Graham that he had in his days with another converted basketball player, Antonio Gates.
By the end of 2010, Graham's growth made it easier for the Saints to release starting tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Graham understood the move was a vote of confidence in him, but he was conflicted because he saw Shockey as a mentor and still talks to him regularly.
I'll be on the phone with him and he's still telling me what to do,'' Graham said.He's like my older brother still, but for me I know it's going to be a great opportunity.''
At the same time, Graham sensed he had a long way to go to master his position. During the NFL lockout, he flew from his offseason home in downtown Miami to New Orleans for workouts organized by Brees and defensive captain Jon Vilma at Tulane, giving him a chance to strengthen his relationship with his quarterback, but also to work with veteran tight end David Thomas.
Graham has added between 5 and 10 pounds of bulk and said he has been focused on becoming a better blocker.
I just want to be a complete tight end to where, whenever I'm on the field, you don't know what's going on,'' Graham said.Last year I felt like a lot of opponents knew we were going to pass the ball when I was in there. Now I just want to be able to block and hold my own.''
While Graham went to Miami, he has yet to be mentioned in the scandal surrounding booster Nevin Shapiro and does not expect the NCAA's investigation of the matter to be a major distraction for him.
Graham said he recalled seeing Shapiro sitting in courtside seats when he was a basketball player, but said he could not recall hearing of teammates receiving improper gifts from him. He added, ``I don't know the guy. I was a battling power forward. When it comes to big guys they were helping, they wouldn't help me out. I was a nobody.''
It is apparent now, however, that Graham is no longer a ``nobody'' in New Orleans, particularly when it comes to his growing relationship with Brees.
Last year, I think at the end of the year, I was jelling with him very well, especially those last couple games,'' Graham said.For me, it's just working and building off that. I know he has confidence in me and now I've just got to go out there and prove it.''
Notes: Saints coach Sean Payton said the Saints rested starting RG Jahri Evans because of knee soreness and gave Tracy Porter a planned day off as he recovers from offseason left knee surgery, adding that Porter probably won't play at Houston on Saturday night. ... Also missing practice were LB Ezra Butler (groin), LB Ramon Humber (right quad), LB Clint Ingram (right hamstring), RB Joique Bell (left knee), DT Tom Johnson (left calf), CB Johnny Patrick (right knee), DE Jeff Charleston (left ankle), OT Alex Barron (left knee), FS Malcolm Jenkins (right knee), CB Leigh Torrence (right hip) and WR Courtney Roby (left elbow).