It’s only been two years since Jimmy Graham last made the Pro Bowl, but after a disappointing first season with the Packers, the veteran tight end — I’m also required to point out he’s a former basketball player — has heard what you’ve been saying about him and you can bet he’s using what you’ve been saying as motivation.
On Monday, after a joint practice with the Texans, Graham made it clear he’s well aware what his perception is at this stage in his career. He knows he’s often regarded as past his prime — or put another way, he knows we all think he’s “old and slow.”
But he also thinks new coach Matt LaFleur’s offensive system is designed to get the most out of him.
“This is an offense where they match up a lot of formations, and the run to the pass. And for me, that’s all good,” Graham said, per Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. “And, they like to use the tight end quite a bit. I think we’ve got a dynamic group of tight ends and we’ve got a good mix of veterans and young kids. I’m excited to see what we’re going to do this year. I really am.
“Everybody thinks I’m old and slow now, so, we’ll see what happens.”
Graham’s not wrong. Most people do seem to think he’s “old and slow,” but that’s only because Graham has looked old and slow over the past few seasons.
Even though he made the Pro Bowl in 2017 after a 10-touchdown season with the Seahawks, Graham averaged only 9.1 yards per catch that season, as he morphed into a deadly red zone weapon that was mostly ineffective in between the 20s. In other words, he wasn’t the explosive weapon he once was with the Saints, when he looked like one of the league’s top pass-catching tight ends.
Since leaving the Saints before the 2015 season, Graham still ranks fifth in receiving yards and eighth in touchdown catches among all tight ends, but with the Saints from 2010-14, Graham ranked first in receiving yards and second in touchdown catches at his position group.
, Graham disappointed with 55 receptions, 636 yards, and only two touchdowns. The touchdowns dried up in Green Bay. And Graham looked like just another ordinary tight end out there.
Graham knows all of this, which is why he’s “fired up” about the chance to “shut a lot of people up.”
“When I get those opportunities, I have to show him that I’m the biggest, fastest thing out there. I have to go up and get those grabs for him,” Graham said. “I’ve been focused and I’m ready to get this thing started obviously. We have four more weeks here, but I’m about as fired up as I’ve ever been to go and shut a lot of people up.”
Graham is likely also well aware that if he fails to produce again in 2019, he might be a goner. While he’s under contract through next season, the Packers can cut Graham in the offseason and save $8 million against the cap, according to Spotrac. Adding to the likelihood that the Packers will move on from Graham is the presence of third-round rookie Jace Sternberger, who has the potential to develop into a capable pass-catching tight end.
For the upcoming season, Graham and Sternberger should both expect to be given plenty of chances to contribute. As Graham said, LaFleur’s system is tight end friendly. With LaFleur as the offensive coordinator last season, the Titans’ offense used 12 personnel (one back and two tight ends) on 26 percent of their snaps when league average was 16 percent, according to Sharp Football Stats. They used 13 personnel (one back and three tight ends) 13 percent of the time when league average was three percent, also according to Sharp Football Stats. That bodes well for Graham.
Graham, who will turn 33 in November, should get the opportunities to prove he’s not washed up. But at this stage of his career, it’s much more likely his best years are well behind him. That said, if the Packers can turn him into a red zone weapon the way the Seahawks did, they can make him extremely useful. Graham might be aging, but he’s still a 6-foot-7 tight end who can come down with jump balls in the end zone and box out smaller defensive backs.
That holds value in today’s NFL. Graham might not be as valuable as he once was, but he can still be valuable to a team like the Packers as they chase another Super Bowl before the end of the Aaron Rodgers era.