Dougherty: Packers' pickup of Jimmy Graham leaves questions

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (88) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass during the second half against the Houston Texans at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks won 41-38.

The Green Bay Packers essentially traded Jordy Nelson for Jimmy Graham, salary and all.

From here, it looks like an upgrade.

But it's still hard not to think they would have been better off paying the extra few million dollars to sign Sammy Watkins or Allen Robinson at receiver, and bringing in a starting tight end cheaper than Graham.

We’re talking free agency here, so Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst would have been taking a calculated risk no matter which way he went. With Graham it’s the potential for imminent decline because of age (he’s 31). The talented Watkins has been an underachiever in his four years in the NFL. And Robinson is coming off a torn ACL.

The cost for Watkins and Robinson was higher than you might have guessed going into free agency. Watkins’ three-year deal with Kansas City averages $16 million, includes a $21 million signing bonus and will pay him $34 million the first two years. That average makes him the fourth-highest paid receiver in the league. This for a guy who caught 39 passes in 15 games for the Rams last season.

Details of Robinson’s reported three-year, $42 million contract with Chicago haven’t come out yet, but if those basic numbers are correct, that’s an average of $14 million a year. That’s a big leap of faith on a guy still rehabbing an ACL who probably won’t be ready to practice until training camp.

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But both offered youth – each turns 25 this summer – and big-play ability. Watkins has the speed to stretch defenses, a career average of 15.9 yards per catch and 25 touchdown receptions despite playing with mostly subpar quarterbacks. Robinson had 14 touchdowns and a 17.5-yard average two years ago.

Lining up one of those two across from Davante Adams had the potential to keep defensive coordinators in the league up late at night.

Gutekunst opted out of the bidding. Maybe he didn’t want to bring in another receiver over or near Adams’ $14.5 million salary – that certainly would have been a concern high on former GM Ted Thompson’s list.

Or maybe Gutekunst chose Graham at the $10 million he saved by cutting Nelson because he needed cap space for the offer sheet he presented Friday to cornerback Kyle Fuller, who had the Bears' transition tag. But if that’s the case, the GM was saving the money for a Hail Mary, considering the Bears had far more cap room than the Packers. It predictably failed.

The Bears quickly matched so the Packers’ work was for naught. All they did was negotiate the contract for Chicago, and really they're lucky the Bears didn't keep them in limbo for the allowed five days. The Packers still have a couple of big holes at their top three cornerback spots, and not much left in free agency to pick over.

Gutekunst's first week of free agency ends with Graham signed and Nelson cut on offense, and Muhammad Wilkerson added to the Packers' defense.

Wilkerson, 28, was a bargain at $5 million plus incentives. Though he flamed out after signing a big contract with the New York Jets two years ago, he was talented enough to get 10½  sacks in 2013 and 12 sacks in ’15. If he rekindles his fire, he, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark could give the Packers one of the best rotations of inside rushers in the NFL.

Moving on from Nelson couldn’t have been fun for Gutekunst, but the swap for Graham was the percentage play.

Going off the second half of last season, Nelson showed the signs of a rapidly declining player. His exceptional chemistry with Aaron Rodgers left open the chance of keeping him around another season, but by last December Nelson’s speed and ability to run after the catch looked like they were gone.

Graham’s no youngster (31), but he’s about 1½ years younger than Nelson, a much bigger target (6-6¼, 265 pounds) over the middle of the field and a major threat in the red zone (10 touchdowns last season).

For those concerned that he’s the next Martellus Bennett, Graham ran a 4.56-second 40 coming out of college and has always been more of a quick-twitch athlete than Bennett (4.68). Chances are he’s not hitting the wall Bennett hit last season.

Let's also assume that in making this deal coach Mike McCarthy knows what Graham does and doesn’t offer, and unlike Seattle, will use him accordingly.

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Graham can’t block a lick. He’s a glorified big receiver. In his final season in New Orleans in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus, he lined up at receiver on 197 snaps and in the slot 304. But in three years with the Seahawks, he didn’t top even 100 snaps for a season at receiver until last year. Same for 200 snaps in the slot.

Maybe Nelson will prove otherwise in Oakland, but this looks like an upgrade for the Packers.

Still, you wonder just how big an improvement it will be. In the last few weeks, I talked to two NFL scouts who work in the NFC West, where Graham played the last three seasons, and they had contrasting takes on him.

One still likes him as a threat to stretch the middle of the field and in the red zone.

“He’s good. He’s not slowed down much,” the scout said.

But the other doesn’t consider Graham worth $10 million a year, which is the reported average of his three-year deal with the Packers.

“In the red zone he’s phenomenal,” the other scout said. “In between the (20s) it’s just flipping a coin. I can send you video of him running routes and he’s the targeted receiver and he’s running nonchalant routes. It’s, dude, get in and out of your breaks, whip your head around. I was disappointed in his (overall) game.”

The second scout likes another Seahawks’ free agent, Luke Willson, as a tight end who might cost only half as much as Graham. While not as talented, Willson is tougher and has surprising speed (reported 4.51 40 at his pro day in 2013). He reportedly was to visit Carolina and Detroit this weekend.

“(Willson) might be a little less athletic than Jimmy Graham,” the scout said, “but he dives for balls, gets dirty, runs good routes. I just like everything about his game. I’m surprised Seattle hasn’t tried to tie him up.”

Gutekunst has made his call. He went for the big-ticket tight end instead of the bigger-ticket receiver. Then he made his surprise gambit for Fuller.

A week into free agency, the Packers still need a starting cornerback in the worst way. The question is, what’s Gutekunst's plan now that Fuller has fallen through?

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