GREEN BAY – At his current pace, Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham will finish the season with 64 catches for 676 yards and four touchdowns.
His reception total would set a franchise record for tight ends.
Given his perceived lack of impact on the 2-1-1 Packers, that would come as a huge surprise, especially given the production of predecessors such as Jermichael Finley, Mark Chmura, Bubba Franks, Jackie Harris and Paul Coffman.
But when the Packers signed Graham to a three-year deal that would pay him $13 million in 2018, they had their eye on his New Orleans Saints numbers when he averaged 10 touchdowns a season from 2010-14.
At some point, coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers expect Graham to have a breakout game, but both said they are not worried that his numbers aren’t off the charts.
“I think teams are so much more aggressive in taking a guy away today,” McCarthy said of the most recent eras. “Look at (Rob) Gronkowski. I was watching the Patriots. You talk about doubling. They’re doubling the guy and he’s getting tilt from the safety. That’s crazy.
“So, you have to give those guys (the opponent) a little bit of credit, too.”
McCarthy said teams have been expending a lot of resources to make sure Graham doesn’t hurt them and the result has been that receiver Davante Adams has received a healthy 10 targets per game, No. 3 receiver Geronimo Allison has caught 19 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns and backup running back Ty Montgomery has caught 11 passes for 135 yards.
Still, the Packers haven’t been very explosive this season.
They rank 23rd in yards per passing attempt and tied for 18th in pass completions of 20 or more yards. Some of that is related to Rodgers playing with a sprained left knee and McCarthy less willing to put him in harm’s way with long-developing routes.
But with that being the case, Graham should be even more involved. If anyone should be able to present Rodgers with an easy completion it would be the 6-foot-7 Graham. But it really hasn’t been the case.
Rodgers did hit him on a play-fake for a 3-yard touchdown against Buffalo Sunday, but Graham also dropped a pass and was the target when Rodgers threw his only interception. On the play, Graham read the play slightly different than Rodgers and bent the route a little too far inside, allowing linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to tip the pass to a teammate.
It’s also possible that Graham, whom scouts have said has lost a step since his dominating days in New Orleans, just isn’t getting open. He has taken the last two Wednesday practices off to rest his knee.
Asked about Graham’s speed, McCarthy said he had no concerns.
This week against the Detroit Lions, it’s possible Rodgers will be without his top three receivers: Adams (calf), Randall Cobb (hamstring) and Allison (concussion). Or he might just have Adams. Either way, Graham is going to have to pick up some of the slack.
Rodgers said he’s still getting used to playing with Graham.
"You’ve got to keep him on your mind on certain situations, calling plays for him where he can be in the No. 1 spot,” Rodgers said. “He has a different catch radius. Open for him is different than other guys, so just trusting that his big body and his wide catch radius, he’s open even on plays where it looks like he might be covered.”
Part of the equation is where Graham lines up.
In the season opener, the Chicago Bears chucked him at the line of scrimmage with an outside linebacker or defensive end any time he lined up in the “home”, or traditional tight end position, or lined up slightly extended in a stand-up position.
Other opponents have played Cover 3, where the linebackers drop into zones instead of covering Graham one-on-one. Throwing down the middle is extremely difficult because there is a safety planted between the hash marks.
When both safeties are back, each covering one half of the field, there was a hole in the middle of the defense and just seven men at the line of scrimmage to play the run.
“He gets a lot of attention,” McCarthy said of Graham. “I loved Jermichael Finley, but defenses didn’t do that back then. Jermichael, they played two-shell. Jermichael Finley made the job much easier for the receivers in that era because they had to play us Cover 2.
“But since he left, it’s all three-shell, double, double, double.”
In the red zone, McCarthy said, teams will play a Cover 1 concept where the defense takes away the receivers’ outside routes and funnels everything to the middle safety. It makes it more difficult for a tight end to work the middle of the field.
On the other hand, the coverages that are played to take away Graham allow for some other receivers to face single coverage. In the second half of the Buffalo game, the Bills went to a man-to-man defense so they could create more pressure on Rodgers.
It gave Adams and the other receivers single coverage and the focus turned to taking advantage of those opportunities.
“He (Graham) has helped us in other realms,” passing coordinator Jim Hostler said. “Just the ability to take pressure off of the other guys. And if you’ve looked at these guys in the past, Randall has been inside and doubled a lot.
“And now Randall has a lot more freedom in there (or) whoever’s playing inside has a lot more freedom.”
The Lions game should provide some opportunities for Graham because of the defense’s stop-the-run philosophy. Rodgers is getting healthier and more mobile and should be able to extend plays more as the season goes on.
If anyone should benefit from that, it’s Graham, whose size makes him hard to cover when the play breaks down and goes into scramble mode.