For the first time since the surprising trade that sent him from New Orleans to Seattle, Jimmy Graham will play at the Superdome, the building where he established himself as one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
With Graham's current team, the Seattle Seahawks, playing the Saints for the first time since the 2013 postseason, Graham will take part in a homecoming of sorts that might feel a little strange for both sides.
"It's going to be weird," Saints quarterback Drew Brees told reporters in New Orleans this week. "Obviously a lot of good years here with Jimmy, I hated to see him go. We were close—he was close with a lot of guys, and we all loved Jimmy. We understand that things like that happen in this league. I'm sure he's going to be pretty amped up to be back. I know our fanbase loves him, they love what he did for New Orleans and did for our team. There's a lot of love there… We're great friends. Honestly, he's like a brother to me, he really is, but I know this week he's going to be locked and loaded, just like I am."
The good news for Graham and the Seahawks is that he returns to New Orleans looking a lot like the player who earned Pro Bowl honors three times and first-team All-Pro honors once while wearing a Saints uniform. Graham's first season with the Seahawks wasn't a bad one by any means—he was one of Seattle's leading receivers with 48 catches for 605 yards through 11 games—but it did take some time for him to really hit his stride, and just when it looked like Graham and quarterback Russell Wilson were really starting to find their rhythm, Graham went down with a season-ending knee injury.
This season, however, Graham has not only made an incredibly impressive comeback from a torn patellar tendon, he has also reestablished himself as one of the league's top tight ends. After easing his way back into game action early this season, Graham had six catches for 100 yards in a Week 3 win over the 49ers, then added 113 more on six catches in a win over the Jets the following week, making him the first Seahawk to have 100 receiving yards in consecutive games since 2010. Graham nearly made it three straight after the bye, catching six passes for 89 yards, then he added five catches for 53 yards last week.
In other words, Graham is performing like the kind of player the Seahawks were hoping to acquire when they sent a first-round pick and center Max Unger to New Orleans for Graham and fourth-round pick prior to the 2015 season.
"Jimmy's been on a real ascent here for a month or so since he really got his legs back under him and got enough play time that he got through kind of what preseason would have been to him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He has really been flying. It's been pretty apparent, the chemistry between he and Russell has really turned on, and we love the fact that it feels like that. We know what we're going to get from that connection, we're utilizing him in a way that we feel is best suited for the plans. We don't hesitate to go to Jimmy at any time. He's done a fantastic job."
Part of Graham's ascent this season has been steady improvement in his ability to block, something he wasn't asked to do a lot of in New Orleans. If you go back and watch the overtime period of last week's game at Arizona, Graham wasn't just a big part of Seattle's best two drives of the day because of his three catches for 35 yards, but also because of the way he blocked on what were some of the most successful running plays of the game.
"His blocking has really improved," Carroll said. "He's just taken over the spot. When he came here, he said, 'I'm willing to be an all-around tight end. I want to be the best all-around tight end in the NFL.' That was going to encompass the blocking aspect of it. Every game, he makes crucial blocks. He made a couple great plays at the end of the game, and he continues to improve and get better. His willingness has always been there, his technique now has really come along. It makes him a complete player and we're really thrilled about it. He's fired up about it, too. He is really proud that he has been able to learn a lot in the last couple years and improve his play."
Wilson, one of Graham's closest friends on the team, figures Graham will "be excited to go back there and play in that stadium again. It's going to be a tough crowd, that's for sure. He had a lot of great moments there."
But more than Graham's homecoming, Wilson is excited about what he has seen out of the tight end this season.
"He's a tremendous football player, he's tough as nails," Wilson said. "He can do it all in terms of catching the football, blocking, he's got so many great plays in him. He just continues to build. It's exciting to watch such a special player."
The Saints, meanwhile, hope Graham takes a break from being that "special player" when he faces his former team.
"I cheer for him every other game," running back Mark Ingram told reporters in New Orleans. "I always hope he does well. I hope he has the best games ever. But it's going to be a little different seeing him in a Seattle uniform. But I wish him the best, man. That's one of my good friends. But it's going to be a little different being on a different team than him."
A little different or not, Carroll isn't concerned about how Graham will perform playing against his former team and in front of Saints fans.
"I've talked to Jimmy to see how worked up he is—sometimes it's a big deal to a guy and sometimes it isn't," Carroll said. "He's very centered and focused on what we're doing, I'm not worried about it at all."
This Sunday the Seahawks will face the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Throughout their history, these two teams have battled 12 times splitting the all-time series 6-6.