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Saints TE Graham healthier, seeks improvement

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

Jimmy Graham talks about his performance last season as if it were an enormous disappointment.

Forget that many tight ends would have been pleased to make 85 catches - which led the Saints in that category - for 982 yards and nine touchdowns.

Those totals still represented a drop-off for the 6-foot-7 Graham, who had one the best seasons ever for someone at his position in 2011.

''This is probably the hungriest I've ever been to kind of right the wrongs of last year and to prove what this team can do and maybe hush up some of the naysayers,'' Graham said. ''So for me it's all work and doing as much as I can to be the best player I can.''

Graham, a converted college basketball player drafted out of Miami in 2010, became a Pro Bowl tight end in only his season NFL season, when his 99 catches for 1,310 yards 11 TDs helped New Orleans' record-setting offense rack up the most yards ever in a season with 7,474.

The only tight end ever to have more yards receiving in a season than Graham is New England's Rob Gronkowski, who had 1,327, also in 2011.

Graham had hoped he would only get better in Year 3, but was hampered for much of the season by a left wrist injury and also missed one game with an ankle sprain.

Graham was plagued by dropped passes. And while he won't blame it on the wrist injury, for which he wore a brace, quarterback Drew Brees was certain it didn't help.

''He was banged up quite a bit last year in his defense,'' Brees said. ''He's had an offseason now to recover and be on the mend. He feels a lot better.''

Graham had wrist surgery after last season. Although he said he is not fully recovered yet, Graham has made several acrobatic catches in non-contact, offseason practices, including a leaping, one-handed grab on a throw to the end zone that delighted fans who flocked to open minicamp practices this week.

''I've been in rehab and I've been getting stronger,'' Graham said. ''Right now I'm almost 100 percent, so going into camp I'll be 100 percent. And it just feels good. It feels good to be healthy finally and to be back playing like me.''

In addition to feeling better physically, Graham said he's drawn confidence from a couple other developments. One is that Brees has been working with him throughout the offseason, which did not happen a year ago while the star quarterback was holding out for a new contract.

The other is having coach Sean Payton, who designed the offense, back from his season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation of the club.

''It feels like it did two years ago. We are right on pace and guys are learning,'' Graham said. ''I'm definitely excited for what is going to happen this year and for everything to start to count.''

Maturity is another factor. For the first time, Graham enters a season as the Saints tight end who has been on the roster the longest. Gone are previous mentors Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas.

''That's definitely different,'' Graham said. ''I've always had somebody there to kind of teach me and to kind of follow them. Now it's a little bit more on my shoulders. ... I'm definitely getting a little older, I'm learning a lot more about defenses this year, and I think that's what is going to help.''

Notes: Payton said he has not decided who will call the offensive plays this season. In 2011, he stopped doing it after he was injured in a sideline collision in the sixth game of the season, taking more of an oversight role while the offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael called plays. Last season Carmichael again called all the plays while Payton was suspended, and the Saints' offense ranked second in total yards. ''Pete has been invaluable. He has been tremendous,'' Payton said. ''His role will be significant.''

Tagged: Patriots, Saints, Drew Brees, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham

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