Dougherty: Packers could regret bringing back tight end Jimmy Graham
The Green Bay Packers are making a mistake bringing back Jimmy Graham at $9 million in salary and bonuses.
Last week at the NFL scouting combine, general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur pretty much confirmed that the 32-year-old Graham will be back for his second season with the Packers.
They didn’t go into much detail as to their thinking, but both brought up Graham’s injuries – a chronic knee issue that limited his practice time as the season went on and a broken thumb that Graham played through for the final six weeks of the season – as reasons for his disappointing 2018.
“Hopefully, he can be a little bit healthier going in through the year,” Gutekunst told reporters in Indianapolis. “Certainly, that’s always a part of production.”
Hats off to Graham for playing through the broken thumb and gamely trying to catch the ball with his hand wrapped to protect his thumb. It was a struggle, but he gave it his best shot.
But while the thumb has healed, what about the knee? It dates to a torn patella tendon in 2015, and has been an issue on and off ever since, though he hasn’t missed a game in that time.
The question is, given the knee and his age, is there really much reason to think Graham has enough left in the tank to justify the cost?
Even before he injured his thumb last season, it was obvious Graham wasn’t as explosive even in 2017, when he caught 10 touchdown passes with Seattle. He was a far cry from being the stud who over a four-year period with New Orleans averaged 89 receptions for 1,099 yards and 11.5 touchdowns.
What are the chances his knee is going to get any better at age 32, even if he goes back to London for another round of an expensive, controversial and non-FDA approved treatment with stem-cells secretions (also called EVs) that he appears to have had the last two offseasons?
Gutekunst and LaFleur are taking the big risk here in bringing Graham back at $9 million.
Graham caught 55 passes in 2018, which ranked only ninth among tight ends in the NFL and was miles behind leaders Zach Ertz (116) of Philadelphia, Travis Kelce (103) of Kansas City and George Kittle (88) of San Francisco. And for the record, Graham averaged about the same number of receptions a game (3.7) before the thumb injury as after (3.5).
Far more telling than those basic numbers, though, is that he didn’t stretch the field and threaten defenses like he had before last season.
Even with defenses keying on him in the red zone, it’s startling that he had only two touchdown receptions last season after catching 10 with Seattle the year before. Also, his seven receptions of 20 yards or more last season tied for 13th among tight ends, according to ESPN.com. For comparison, Kittle led with 20, followed by Kelce (18), Oakland's Jared Cook (15) and Ertz (13).
I’m sure part of Gutekunst’s thinking is how he’d replace Graham, and at what cost, for 2019. If the GM cuts Graham, he’ll pick up $5.3 million in salary-cap space. Gutekunst might think he can’t find somebody better for less than $5.3 million, so he might as well bring back Graham.
Also, asking a rookie, even a first-rounder, to play a big role is asking a lot. Tight end is one of the tougher positions for rookies because of its extensive responsibilities in both blocking in the run game and running routes as a receiver. That’s a lot of detail to absorb in just one season.
In the last 10 years, for instance, only three rookie tight ends (Evan Engram, Tim Wright and Jermaine Gresham) had at least 50 catches, and only six more were in the 40s. Last season, Chris Herndon of the New York Jets led all rookie tight ends with only 39 receptions, and the lone first-rounder, Baltimore's Hayden Hurst, had only 13.
But remember, too, that Graham isn’t much of a blocker, and run blocking is especially important at tight end in LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme. A couple years ago, Graham still could threaten defenses enough to more than make up for his blocking deficiencies. Based on last season, that’s not the case anymore.
I still suspect that next year at this time we’ll think the $5.3 million in cap space could have been put to better use, either at tight end or another position.
It does make me wonder whether LaFleur had much say on this decision.
While Gutekunst has the final word over the roster, he has said he has the same deal with his coach as GM predecessors Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson had with theirs: He won’t force a player on him that the coach doesn’t want.
But only weeks into his new job, was LaFleur going to fight Gutekunst on a player he doesn’t know well? Does LaFleur really think a 32-year-old Graham will be a good fit in his offense?
Last week when asked if Graham still can stretch defenses, LaFleur answered: “Especially when you’re coming in from the outside, you don’t know exactly what he was going through (last season) physically and what not. Anytime you’re dealing with a guy who’s got a little bit of mileage on him, I think we have to be careful in how much we ask of him throughout the (practice) week.”
Regardless of the Graham decision, tight end has to be a priority for the Packers in this year’s draft. It has to be on the table beginning with their pick at No. 12 overall, where Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson is a possibility. They need young talent to go with their interesting second-year prospect, Robert Tonyan.
As for Graham, maybe LaFleur’s offense will be more tight-end friendly than Mike McCarthy’s, and maybe the new coach will find a way to get more out of the 32-year old than McCarthy did last season. But I’d bet against it.