One of the hallmarks of the Thompson-McCarthy era was releasing players while they still had productive years of football left in them. It looks like the Gutekunst-LaFleur pairing is trying to avoid such a mistake with respect to Jimmy Graham.
We all know that Jimmy is being overpaid. Regardless, it does appear the Packers are going to keep the tight end around for at least the middle year of his three-year $30 million deal. So, what are his prospects for 2019?
For the record, I was completely unenthusiastic when the trade was announced, for the simple reason that Coach McCarthy had so rarely made productive use out of his tight ends.
But with McCarthy gone, I’m intrigued by the notion that Coach LaFleur can get Jimmy trending up again. My hopes rest in no small part on the path that Jared Cook’s career has taken.
Though Cook didn’t turn in great stats when he was with the Packers in 2016, that’s easily explainable by his injuries. When he was healthy, his ability and value were obvious. After one year in Green Bay, the front office insulted and lost him by trying to low-ball him on a new contract. He left in a huff for Oakland, who gave him a two-year deal at $5.3 million per.
In 2017, Jared stayed healthy, started all 16 games, and caught 54 passes for 668 yards and two touchdowns. Then in 2018, the big guy performed up to what I was expecting had he stayed in Green Bay: 68 catches, 896 yards, and 6 touchdowns. At the conclusion of the season, the 10-year vet was named to his first Pro Bowl. And these fine numbers were achieved with a mediocre QB, Derek Carr, making the throws!
As an offensive coordinator, LaFleur didn’t have much to work with in the tight end department. In 2018 with the Titans, he had Luke Stocker and Jonny Smith, who combined for a bit more than 400 yards. With the Rams in 2017, his two top TEs, Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee, fared only slightly better.
Will a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro tight end get LaFleur and his staff salivating? LaFleur likes to talk about putting players in positions where they can be successful. Here’s his chance.
Or should we consider Jimmy washed up? The guy is just over 32 years old. He is still 6’7” tall and presumably still around 265 pounds. How much production might he have still in him? Well, he’s had five seasons of gaining 889 yards or more through the air. Though most of them came courtesy of Drew Brees, as recently as 2016 he went for 923 yards when with Seattle and Russell Wilson.
I detect glimmers of hope that Jimmy will rebound from a less than stellar 2018, when he had 55 catches for 636 yards and only two TDs.
First, it was Graham’s first year paired up with Aaron Rodgers, and history tells us it takes lots of time for Aaron to feel comfortable and confident regarding his receivers.
Second, Mike McCarthy chose to semi-platoon Graham all year long. Even when he was healthy, Big Mike regularly brought in Lance Kendricks, Marcedes Lewis, or Robert Tonyan to spell him. Does a 32-year-old – and one making so much money – need to be rested so much?
Third, in the tenth game of the year, at Seattle on November 15, Graham injured his thumb. It was reported everywhere the next day that he had broken his thumb. Days later, however, Graham indicated that, rather than sit out for from four to six weeks, he intended to play at Minnesota against the Vikings, and indeed he did, on November 25.
At the time this happened, I looked around the internet to find out more info about the injury. I just did so again, and still cannot get any details about the “broken thumb.” We know that Clay Matthews once played several games with a broken thumb, but he wore a “club” the size of a bowling ball. Graham wore a much smaller cast or brace, or it would have been inconceivable for him to be a pass receiver.
I’ve got to believe that Graham’s injury was of a different level of severity that Clay’s. Even so, it seems that Graham went beyond duty’s call in playing in every remaining game of the season. Unfortunately, in those games he was unable to pull in several key throws that were contested by defenders.
Though his first six games, Jimmy was headed toward a fine season: he had 27 catches for 349 yards, which projects through 16 games to 72 catches for 931 yards. But from the Seahawks’ game forward, Graham never exceeded 50 yards in a game, and the Packers finished out the year with two wins and five losses.
Many wrote Jimmy off after that painful series of late-season non-catches. I think that’s premature.
In mid-December, ESPN’s Rob Demovsky quoted Graham as saying, “My numbers suck,” and then adding, “You don’t want to shatter your thumb; that’s not great.”
Jimmy then rendered a brutal self-appraisal:
(Stats are) not what it’s about. I just want to win games. If I have one catch for two yards and we win, I don’t care. But obviously it’s not great when you’re not helping us win, and that’s what I see.
If, and there are several big ifs, we have a healthy Graham and a rejuvenated Rodgers, under the guidance of a new head coach and staff, and with a new and modern offensive scheme in place, I can still envision the Jimmy Graham investment paying off.
Picture this: it’s the final and meaningless game of the year; one of the greatest tight ends in history is rehabbing a shattered thumb; quarterback DeShone Kizer is having a 132 yard, 44.0 passer rating effort, and yet Jimmy is out there taking 70% of the snaps. I’m won over.
This guy has been a superstar. He’s a team player, a professional, works hard, and he’s got a lot of pride. I think the Packers’ all-time annual yardage record by a tight end is held by Paul Coffman, at 814 yards in 1983. That’s an attainable goal for Jimmy in 2019.
Much depends, however, on how much confidence the coaches and QB have in Graham. He was targeted 89 times last season. In the nine games prior to the thumb injury, Rodgers targeted him only 55 times and Jimmy had only 33 catches.
Why bother paying a guy $30 mil if you’re not going to feed him the ball? From 2011 through 2014, Drew Brees threw Jimmy’s way an average of 138 times (8.6 per game), and Jimmy caught an average of 89 passes per season (5.6 per game). Use him or release him.
Final thought. Lots of fans are thinking the Pack should draft a tight end in one of the early rounds. No way. With Graham on the roster, and Kendricks, Lewis, and Tonyan as adequate backups, there’s no hole to fill there. There are plenty of holes to elsewhere, however, so use those precious choices where more pressing needs exist.