Kind of like last season, you thought.
Then, just as camp was about to begin its second week, you saw the Jimmy Graham of old. Maybe not the Graham of New Orleans, who made the Pro Bowl three times in a four-year stretch. But at the very least the Graham of Seattle, who in 2016 posted his highest career yards-per-catch average (14.2) and in 2017 posted the last of his four double-digit-touchdown seasons.
You saw a quick catch on a hot read against a blitz followed two plays later by a back-shoulder touchdown. The next day, you saw another touchdown to win a two-minute drive on a free play. Then the Texans come to town for joint practices, and there was another big catch against Houston’s No. 1 defense.
Then you thought, so this is why general manager Brian Gutekunst decided to bring Graham back for a second season with the Packers, despite a year in which even Graham said “my numbers suck.”
Not all of Graham’s numbers sucked: His 55 catches for 636 yards were within the realm of expectations. But the difference was in the touchdowns. He had 10 in his final season with the Seahawks and just two last season during his first with the Packers, while he battled a chronically sore knee and a broken thumb that somehow didn’t keep him from any games.
“Everybody thinks I’m old and slow now,” Graham said. “So we’ll see what happens.”
Worth the money?
Graham, at age 32 (he turns 33 on Nov. 24), is technically the highest-paid tight end in the NFL, based on average-per-year ($10 million). But after paying him $13 million last season in the first of a three-year deal, the Packers could have moved on and saved $5.333 million on their salary cap (or $9 million had they designated him a post-June 1 cut).
Graham had no interest in discussing that possibility when he spoke to reporters this week for the first time since the end of last season.
It was after Gutekunst talked with new coach Matt LaFleur about the role of the tight end in the Packers’ new offensive scheme that he decided to pay Graham the $5 million roster bonus in March and ensure he would be back for a total of $9 million this season.
“He’s a big, long, linear guy,” LaFleur said shortly after he was hired. “Just going back to my background, last year was kind of the first time I’ve been around a guy similar to that skill set that was more stretch the field vertically with Delanie [Walker]. Can open some stuff up down the field and especially if you can catch a big guy like that on some linebackers or safeties, that’s a huge matchup problem for a defense down the field.”
Graham indicated last season that he wasn’t used to his strengths, saying at the end of the year that, “It’s just in this offense, the tight end does a lot of stuff.”
The same can be true in LaFleur’s offense. For example, LaFleur asked Graham to block on a jet sweep, and he executed it to perfection to spring Trevor Davis for a long run during an early training camp practice.
But this offense also might better utilize his ability to create mismatches in the secondary.
“This is an offense where they match up a lot of formations and the run to the pass,” Graham said. “And for me, that’s all good. And they like to use the tight end quite a bit.”
Packers linebacker Blake Martinez believes that works to Graham’s advantage.
“I think he’s more, I guess, involved in the offense and stuff like that,” Martinez said. “When he’s out there, you’ve got to be able to identify him, know where he’s at, because they’re using him as a weapon all across the board, whether he’s flexed out as the No. 1 or the No. 3. So it’s one of those things where I think he’s liking it a lot more.”
‘This year is going to be explosive’
Robert Tonyan spent all of last season as one of Graham’s backups, and he’s still a little miffed about Graham’s self-evaluation.
“That was an off year?” Tonyan said, somewhat puzzled.
But in another sense, Tonyan understands it because he says he sees the pressure that Graham puts on himself.
“He puts a lot of stress on himself,” Tonyan said. “He’s his biggest critic. A lot of us are our biggest critics, but he’s very mature and knows what’s going on, very in control of himself. I wouldn’t even say it’s him marching to his own beat, I just think he is so professional at what he does that he knows what he needs to do to get prepared for a Sunday.”
Martinez sees the same thing in Graham.
“I think he came to training camp ready to go,” Martinez said. “He’s making plays consistently, and I think for him to reiterate at the end of the year that he had a down year just shows that hunger can be there, and I think this year is going to be explosive for him.”
Rookie tight end Jace Sternberger had no preconceived notions about Graham, but so far, he has noticed two things: Graham’s desire and his willingness to help others.
“I’ve sensed the hunger since Day 1,” Sternberger said. “He knows he didn’t have the year he wanted, he’s let that be known, and he’s coming on a mission this year. I’m glad I’m getting to watch it and witness it. He’s working extra hard, and it’s pushing us to work extra hard.
“Jimmy probably is one of my favorite players right now just because of how cool he’s been with me. Anytime I need help with something, he’s always there to help me. If he sees someone who’s maybe not in the best mood, he’s always there trying to cheer people up. He’s really just a great guy.”