Red-zone weapon Jimmy Graham gives Packers' offense wider range of options
Fourth in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
When it comes to the tight end position, the Green Bay Packers have to be hoping the third time is the charm.
General manager Brian Gutekunst went shopping for the position in free agency this spring, striking a big-time deal with former Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham early and then bringing in former Jacksonville Jaguar Marcedes Lewis late.
This approach followed the path of Gutekunst’s predecessor and mentor Ted Thompson, who dove into free-agency waters last offseason when he signed Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks. The year before that, Thompson used free agency to bring in Jared Cook.
Thompson’s decision to draw a hard line in negotiations with Cook and bring in Bennett blew up in his face with the now well-documented meltdown between Bennett and the team. The veteran tight end was a shell of the player who had performed so well with the New England Patriots the season before, dropping passes at an alarming rate.
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So now the Packers enter training camp looking to build chemistry between quarterback Aaron Rodgers and yet another new group of tight ends. One can only wonder what paying Cook a bit more two summers ago may have done not only for the position but for continuity on the offense.
For a team that likes to preach a “draft and develop” mantra, the Packers have not drafted a tight end since Richard Rodgers in the third round in 2014. Rodgers was allowed to leave in free agency this offseason and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Roster locks: Jimmy Graham.
Good bets: Marcedes Lewis, Lance Kendricks.
On the bubble: Emanuel Byrd.
Long shots: Robert Tonya, Ryan Smith, Kevin Rader.
Biggest offseason move
Signing Jimmy Graham. The former Seahawks and New Orleans Saints stalwart told reporters in the spring that he had more money on the table elsewhere, but chose to come to Green Bay for the opportunity to play with Rodgers. He is coming off a season that produced only 57 receptions for 520 yards, his fewest since his rookie season. With that said, Graham remains a big-time weapon in the red zone. He led the league last year with 27 targets in the region, which led to 10 touchdowns. You can bet Rodgers and play-caller Mike McCarthy will be utilizing his skills early and often when knocking on the door of the end zone.
Lance Kendricks was solid if unspectacular last season when he was thrust into the starting role after the departure of Bennett. He remains a decent downfield threat who struggles at the point of attack in the run game. Second-year pro Emanuel Byrd should have an opportunity when it comes to the third tight end spot behind Graham and Lewis. A late addition last summer, Byrd flashed some athleticism in camp with several acrobatic catches and showed something again when given an opportunity in the team’s final game in Detroit. If Byrd can become a significant contributor on special teams and continue to develop on offense, he could make things interesting.
Keep an eye on
Undrafted free agent Kevin Rader began on the defensive line at Youngstown State before switching to the offensive side of the ball. Rader offers good size at 6-4 and 250 pounds and shows a willingness to stick his nose in at the point of attack in the run game, something the Packers haven’t featured much over the past few years at the tight end position. He’s a long shot to make the roster, but if he flashes early in camp he could warrant a longer look.
While many remember the thrilling 36-yard connection between Rodgers and Cook that led to victory in the divisional playoff game in Dallas, Cook's contribution to the offense was felt much more in how he helped dictate coverages than any kind of true big-time playmaking ability. Expectations were sky high last summer with Bennett at the position, but Rodgers ended up never finding him in the end zone, and Bennett dropped many of the passes that did come his way. Can Graham become the legit big-time threat the Packers have been looking for at tight end? It’s something they’ve been searching for since losing Jermichael Finley to a neck injury in 2013.
Look for McCarthy to use a variety of personnel groupings with his new tight end group and expect to see Graham split out wide as a receiver much more than as a traditional in-line tight end. The addition of Lewis should open up the play-action game, especially when the Packers start getting the running game going behind the 14-year veteran. Lewis also will be much more of a target in the downfield passing game than most observers might expect.
McCarthy has long talked about taking advantage of “big bodies down the middle of the field” when speaking on the tight end position. While those words haven’t exactly translated to what the Packers have put on the field, that should change this season. Expect a diverse, productive tight end group.