Tight end Jimmy Graham hoping to get another chance to produce for Packers

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham (80) makes a catch in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, December 9, 2018 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Jim Matthews/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wis

GREEN BAY – With the exception of touchdowns, Jimmy Graham’s production in his first season with the Green Bay Packers is on track to increase across the board from last year.

Graham has 46 catches for 549 yards, which is already more than the 520 he had last season with the Seattle Seahawks. He’s averaging 11.9 yards per catch, almost three full yards more than his 9.1 average from last season. True, his two touchdowns are much fewer than the 10 he had last year, but Graham is on pace to have the best season for a Packers tight end since Jermichael Finley.

No matter, the five-time Pro Bowler doesn’t think much of his production.

“My numbers suck,” he said Friday.

In truth, the Packers did not sign Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract this season for merely adequate production. Graham, who has a $5 million roster bonus due in March, will count $12.6 million against the salary cap in 2019 if the Packers retain him. At that figure, they’ll expect more game-changing plays, the kind that have been rare for Graham this season.

It would seem the Packers not only have a decision to make on Graham this offseason, but that the 32-year-old tight end is also aware nothing is guaranteed in his future.

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“I’ve always dominated everywhere I’ve went,” Graham said. “Obviously, I haven’t done that yet here. So it would be nice to get an opportunity to do it. Come back and maybe just be kind of more comfortable here, but I’m going to give it my all no matter what’s asked of me anywhere I go, or if I stay here.”

With his $10 million annual average, the Packers made Graham the league’s highest-paid tight end this spring. Behind him are Kansas City’s Travis Kelce ($9.36 million annual average), Washington’s Jordan Reed ($9.35 million) and New England’s Rob Gronkowski ($9 million).

Kelce, a three-time Pro Bowler, is in his own class as a tight end. Still just 29, he leads his position with 93 catches, 1,220 yards and 10 touchdowns. It’s his third straight 1,000-yard season, and his third straight with at least 80 catches.

Graham’s numbers compare similarly to those of Reed, who has 54 catches, 558 yards and two touchdowns. Gronkowski has 43 catches for 637 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.

The Packers will have to decide whether Graham is past his athletic peak, and whether his future production projects to be worth his salary. It’s worth remembering Graham, originally drafted in the third round by the New Orleans Saints, struggled in his first year with Seattle. He had 48 catches, 605 yards and two touchdowns in 2015 before rebounding with more yards, catches and touchdowns in the next two seasons.

It hasn’t helped that Graham “shattered” his left thumb in Seattle last month. Graham never missed a game, but he has struggled catching the football since. He was unable to haul in a deep pass from Aaron Rodgers against the Atlanta Falcons last week.

“There's a couple of plays,” Graham said, “where you're like, ‘Oh I wish I would've made that.' Obviously, you got the ball right on the thumb. I think I had a couple of penalties last week, too. It's kind of tough. I guess it moves the ball when you're getting PI'd (pass interference) all the time. But yeah, just going out here and trying my best.”

General manager Brian Gutekunst released receiver Jordy Nelson — a longtime Rodgers favorite — to make room for Graham under the salary cap last spring. By the numbers, Gutekunst’s decision seems to have paid off. The GM projected that at 33, the receiver who missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL was nearing decline.

Indeed, Nelson’s 41 catches for 498 yards is less production than Graham has had this season.

Yet, Nelson had a chemistry with Rodgers that was hard to calculate. His greatest value was knowing where to be when Rodgers extended plays outside the pocket, something each receiving target must learn in the Packers' offense. Graham brushed aside any concerns his chemistry with Rodgers hasn’t jelled as expected.

“Things are going fine,” he said. “It’s just in this offense, the tight end does a lot of stuff. I’ve got a lot of responsibilities — just not running routes and out here catching the ball like a receiver. That’s just how it is. I’m just trying to do my job and do what I’m told.”

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