Silverstein: Jimmy Graham deal shows offense still Packers' priority
GREEN BAY – When the whistle went off Tuesday to signal the start of free agency, the Green Bay Packers reverted to their old ways and continued to make their defense feel neglected.
Before the day was over, the Packers remembered that coach Mike McCarthy had said at the NFL scouting combine that he didn't want his defense feeling like a second-class citizen. They addressed a need on that side of the ball agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.
But really, the most significant development of the day was general manager Brian Gutekunst brushing past the top cornerbacks in the free-agent market and putting money down on another offensive piece of the puzzle.
Gutekunst's first free-agent move of his career was to agree to terms with tight end Jimmy Graham.
When push comes to shove, the Packers are always going to build around their franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which is exactly what they did in agreeing to a three-year deal with the former Seattle Seahawks tight end.
REACTION: Fans, players react to Nelson news
In order to keep Graham and Wilkerson from putting them in a tight salary-cap situation, the Packers cut receiver Jordy Nelson, clearing $10.25 million from the cap. The Packers were $30.26 million under the cap after the Nelson maneuver, but that number will drop once the two free agents sign their deals.
The Packers had the option of putting their money in the cornerback market, which is full of starting-caliber and nickel-capable free agents. They were rumored to have interest in No. 1 prospect Trumaine Johnson of the Los Angeles Rams, but a source said they were never in the running for his services.
As the Packers were pursuing Graham, cornerbacks went off the shelf like crazy.
» Johnson agreed to a deal worth a reported $15 million per season with the New York Jets.
» New England’s Malcolm Butler agreed to a reported five-year, $61 million deal with Tennessee
» Washington’s Bashaud Breeland agreed to a reported three-year, $24 million deal with Carolina.
» Jacksonville’s Aaron Colvin agreed to a reported four-year, $31 million deal with Houston.
» The Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman agreed to re-sign for a reported three years, $15.75 million to remain in Los Angeles.
There’s no question the Packers needed to upgrade their targets for Rodgers and they weren’t going to be able to afford any of the top receivers in free agency. It was probably a given that Nelson was going to be released once the Packers needed some cap room because at age 32 he's no longer a $10.25 million player.
That left them with Davante Adams as their No. 1 receiver, Randall Cobb as their No. 2 and nobody else – including a tight end – as a proven No. 3.
Graham is going to be more of a wide receiver than a tight end. He will serve as the No. 2 or No. 3 wide receiver. The 6-6, 265-pound former Seattle Seahawk and New Orleans Saint doesn’t block well and spends most of his time in the slot or out wide. At age 31, he's only a year younger than Nelson.
It’s a good year for tight ends in the draft and the Packers will need to be on the lookout for someone who can block. According to a source, they made contact with Carolina free agent Ed Dickson, who is a very good blocker, but that was before they signed Graham and it’s uncertain whether they still have interest.
Another option is to re-sign free agent Richard Rodgers, but his blocking isn’t very good, either. The only other tight ends on the roster are veteran Lance Kendricks and practice-squad returnee Emanuel Byrd.
In describing Graham, an offensive coach with play-calling experience said the Packers were basically getting a receiver.
“Jimmy has slowed down a bit and has not caught the ball particularly well,” the coach said. “He also won't block anyone, but that is understood. Nonetheless, he is a big, rangy target down the middle of the field.
“It will take a little time to build chemistry with Aaron, but he has a reputation for being a worker and a fairly bright player. The timing and rhythm of GB's offense should suit him, but he must be fearless going down the middle.”
The Packers obviously feel they are a better team when they have a quality pass-catching tight end on the field.
During the 2016 season, Rodgers struggled consistently early in the year, but when tight end Jared Cook, a tall, fast player like Graham, returned from a high-ankle sprain, the Packers won eight straight games before bowing out in the NFC Championship.
With Cook a free agent, then-general manager Ted Thompson shook off the tight end’s demands and signed Martellus Bennett and Kendricks, a pair of big tight ends with pass-catching skills. Bennett turned out to be a bust as a receiver and a reliable player, but his run-blocking was very good. Kendricks gave everything he had but struggled as a blocker and dropped too many passes.
Graham has been durable during his eight years in the league, missing only seven games. He has averaged nearly 70 catches per season, 12. 2 yards per reception and has scored double-digit touchdowns four times.
Graham, who played four years of basketball and just one year of football at the University of Miami, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and had a vertical leap of 38 ½ inches coming into the pros.
The Packers will count on Graham being a height and speed mismatch with linebackers and safeties, especially in the red zone. The Packers have other tall receivers such as Geronimo Allison and Michael Clark, but neither weighs 260 pounds.
After five seasons in New Orleans, including three in which he made the Pro Bowl, Graham was traded to Seattle for center Max Unger and a first-round pick. A patellar tendon tear limited him to 48 catches for 605 yards and two touchdowns in 2015.
Over the next two seasons, he caught 132 passes for 1,443 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Because the financial terms were not leaked by Graham’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, it’s possible he didn’t get near the $10 million a year two sources said they were told he was seeking. The Saints were the only other team reportedly interested and they were focused on re-signing quarterback Drew Brees at a price of $25 million per year.
If the Packers are going to address their defensive shortcomings, they'll have to do it with pass rush instead of free-agent cornerbacks.
They got started Tuesday night by landing Wilkerson, whose objective since being released by the New York Jets a week ago was to sign with the Packers, his agent said. Wilkerson, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark could make a pretty formidable front line for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine
As far as cornerback, their best bet is to re-sign Davon House and sign a veteran or two who won’t have trouble learning Pettine’s system. Then they can draft some corners and bring them along in a veteran environment.
For now, however, the defense is second fiddle when it comes to free-agent additions.