Letting his play do the talking, Packers tight end Jimmy Graham aims to continue increasing productivity
GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers wasn’t worried.
In the wake of Jimmy Graham’s inauspicious Green Bay Packers debut in the team’s season-opening victory over Chicago two weeks ago — two receptions, 8 yards — Rodgers’ message was clear: Don’t worry. I’ll get him the ball.
Rodgers felt his new tight end’s limited impact was predicated more on the Bears’ obsession with him defensively (“There was obviously a concerted effort to double him”) and Chicago’s effectiveness at disrupting Graham’s timing with his new quarterback by whacking him at the line of scrimmage (“Their whole plan was just to disrupt his releases”). And the way Rodgers figured it, even if the Minnesota Vikings defense took the same approach, Graham would break through eventually.
“Teams are going to have to figure out how to play him down the field, and also how to play him in the red zone,” Rodgers said of Graham in advance of last Sunday’s 29-29 tie with the Vikings. “Obviously, he’s a big threat. You’ve got to get him more opportunities out in the field, but when you’re going to roll coverage to him in the red zone, other guys are going to have the matchups you’re looking for. He’s a fantastic player, and at some point, he’s going to get a lot of opportunities.”
That some point was last Sunday, when Graham was targeted eight times and caught six passes for 95 yards. He also had a 12-yard third-quarter touchdown catch wiped out by a questionable holding penalty, a big play that would have given him his first 100-yard receiving game since he had 103 yards for Seattle against Buffalo on Nov. 7, 2016.
Underutilized in Seattle — at least in the opinion of the Packers, who signed him to a three-year, $30 million free-agent deal in March — Graham went all of last season without eclipsing 100 yards in a game. His biggest game in 2017 was a seven-catch, 72-yard outing against Tennessee early in the season.
Upon arriving for the Packers’ offseason program, Graham smirked when asked if he thought he’d be “unleashed” in the Packers offense after the Seahawks mostly used him as only a red-zone target. While his answer was politically correct, the look on his face said far more.
“Obviously it’s different philosophies, Seattle and New Orleans,” explained Graham, who had four straight 85-catch seasons with the Saints prior to his 2015 trade to the Seahawks. “Seattle — defensive based, run, run, run and take care of the ball. We won a lot of games that way, and I did everything to the best of my ability.
“Unfortunately when I first got there, I did have that knee injury which kind of slowed me down a bit. I was able to come back nine months later and haven’t missed a game since then. Most people are pretty stat-oriented. For me, it’s about wins and losses and I’m just trying to get to the playoffs and try to win games.”
Graham has only spoken with reporters once since training camp began, but if that’s indeed his mentality, he figures to help the Packers offense in two ways: by drawing attention away from other targets, as Rodgers pointed out he did against the Bears, and by being productive himself, as he was against Minnesota. Which one it’ll be on Sunday against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field largely depends on how Washington opts to defend the Packers’ offense.
With the attention the Bears devoted to Graham, wide receivers Randall Cobb (nine receptions, 142 yards), Davante Adams (five catches, 88 yards) and Geronimo Allison (five catches, 69 yards) each caught at least five passes and each caught a touchdown pass. With Graham getting more opportunities against Minnesota, only Adams (eight catches, 64 yards, one touchdown on 12 targets) had the ball thrown his way more often.
“Having him in there, obviously, it opens up that window for me outside, it gets Cobb open on the other side and the middle, as well,” Adams explained. “It wasn’t exactly a point of emphasis (leading up to the Vikings game), but we want to get our guy going. It could be anybody’s day, so we go into it with that idea that it could ’Tae making the plays that day, it could be Cobb, G-Mo, Jimmy, ’Cedes (tight end Marcedes Lewis), whoever.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said late Thursday afternoon he thought two things contributed to Graham’s production: the Packers being in “a better rhythm offensively” than against Chicago, when Rodgers was knocked out of the game by a first-half knee injury; and the Vikings playing coverages “that were favorable to him and to us.” Now, the Packers hope the trend continues, regardless of how the Redskins opt to defend Graham.
“He had, what, six catches and 90-some odd yards? That’s a pretty productive day for a tight end. That projects pretty good if you project that out for a season,” Philbin said. “Obviously he had the one touchdown called back; (we) would love for him to score touchdowns. You can add that to this week’s to-do list.
“Again, I like what he’s brought to the offense in a lot of different areas, not just the receiving capability, the big body down the middle. It’s a common thing that football people like to talk about, about a big target. (But) the guy’s a football player, he’s a team player, he’s acclimated well to the locker room, to the scheme offensively. Hopefully, we can continue to get solid performances out of him week in and week out.”