FOXBOROUGH -- At the University of Colorado, tight end Daniel Graham had his choice of jersey numbers. The decision, 89, had significant meaning.
That's the number Graham's favorite all-time player, Mark Bavaro, donned over his productive nine-year NFL career with the Giants (1985-90), Browns (1992), and Eagles (1993-94) .
``I wanted my game to be like his -- a physical tight end," Graham said.
As it turns out, the admiration was mutual. Three years ago, when Bavaro was a guest at Gillette Stadium, he connected with Graham after ``naturally gravitating toward the tight ends." A friendship was hatched between the 43-year-old Bavaro and 27-year-old Graham .
``We talk once in a while," said Bavaro, the former Danvers High School star who relocated to the Boston area three years ago from Naples, Fla. ``It's not like he's coming over to my house, or the type of thing where any of his success is a result of us talking. But in his position, I think of myself. If I had the opportunity to talk to someone like Dave Casper, it would have meant a lot to me.
``We're in the same fraternity, sort of like, `Hey, you're a good one, and I'm an old-timer. I accept you into the great tight end fraternity.' It's nice when two guys really respect the other's ability. To me, he's the best I've seen since I've left the game."
It's high praise coming from Bavaro, considering the current landscape of NFL tight ends includes Pro Bowl selections such as Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates, Atlanta's Alge Crumpler, and the Giants' Jeremy Shockey.
But Bavaro believes Graham -- who has totaled 99 catches for 1,158 yards and 15 touchdowns over four seasons -- is underappreciated. Graham might not have as many catches as top tight ends, but Bavaro said his well-rounded skills are equally, if not more valuable to his team.
It all came to the forefront in 2004 when Bavaro saw Graham -- who had to give up No. 89 when he came to New England (it's retired for Bob Dee) -- haul in three passes for 83 yards and consistently overpower defenders in a 27-19 victory at Kansas City.
``There really aren't a lot of tight ends who can dominate on the line and dominate in the secondary in the passing game," said Bavaro. ``When I saw him that night -- the way he was catching the ball, running after the catch, and blocking up front -- I said to myself that he looks like the best tight end I've seen since watching my old game films."
Perhaps strengthening the connection between Bavaro and Graham is that Bavaro's career statistics aren't eye-opening. An imposing presence at 6 feet 4 inches, 245 pounds, Bavaro totaled 351 catches for 4,733 yards and 39 touchdowns. The most receptions he had in a season were 66 .
Still, Bavaro's value to two Giants championship teams can't be quantified by numbers. In some respects, the 6-3, 257-pound Graham is in a similar position with the Patriots, with whom he's won two Super Bowl championships.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick hinted yesterday that Graham's production as a receiver could probably be greater if the team featured him more. But because Graham is so valuable in other roles, such as blocking, he is often kept in to protect quarterback Tom Brady. Bavaro believes he's ``the best blocking tight end in the game, but unfortunately that doesn't get you a lot of press."
Among Patriots coaches, however, it has yielded Graham plenty of respect.
``I think Dan has a lot of strengths," said Belichick, who along with vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli selected Graham 21st overall in the 2002 draft. ``He's a strong guy who can play on the line of scrimmage and block defensive ends, and hold up there physically. He has good speed, runs well. We've seen him make some long plays, run some vertical routes in the secondary. He has some skills in the passing game, some skills in the running game.
``I think there are some other things he could do that we don't use him for, because with our combinations of personnel we need him to do more of the things he does."
Asked if he wants to catch more passes, Graham used one of Belichick's catch phrases.
``It is what it is," he said. ``The people who are watching, they understand what I do. Whatever they call on me to do, I've been willing to do it. That's what I've been doing since I've been here and I take pride in that."
Graham is in the final year of his contract, and gauging his potential value could be tricky because he doesn't rank highly among tight ends in receptions. A Denver native, he said he has considered the possibilities of what could happen after this season (the sides haven't spoken about a contract extension).
``I'm not going to lie and say I don't think about it; it's there," said Graham, who added that he felt wanted in New England when Belichick publicly refuted rumors the team was considering trading him this offseason. ``At the same time, I'm just trying to finish this season right here. Whatever happens will happen later on. Now I have a job to do, to finish this season."
If there are two areas that have dogged Graham, it's health and consistency. Of the team's 72 games (including playoffs) over the last four seasons, Graham has appeared in 59, and he was limited at the start of this year's training camp because of his shoulder.
``It's a struggle. Overcoming the injuries has been real tough for me but I try to fight through that and keep a positive head," Graham said, noting that he's been getting used to playing with support straps for his shoulders in training camp. ``Right now, I don't feel any pain at all."
Of the current tight ends, Graham said he likes Pittsburgh's Heath Miller because he's ``hard-nosed and willing to do whatever." For Bavaro, the current crop starts with Graham.
``The Patriots like to spread the wealth around and use different guys, but when I played, with [Bill] Parcells, when we found a good thing we used it until the well dried up," Bavaro said. ``My stats might have been more impressive, but physical and ability-wise, I think he's better, stronger, runs with the ball better, and is hard to tackle. And I don't even think he's reached his full potential yet."