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For Packers’ Jimmy Graham, chemistry with Aaron Rodgers will come ... and so will touchdowns

July 29, 2018

GREEN BAY — Maybe, had Josh Jones’ hand not been inside Jimmy Graham’s facemask — something which irritated the Green Bay Packers’ new tight end to no end, and nearly led to a brawl Saturday — Aaron Rodgers and Graham would have had their first touchdown connection of training camp.

Instead, there were words exchanged (Jones told Graham to “shut up” several times as he pleaded his case to the official), some pushing and shoving (defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt interceded when Jones and Graham confronted each other), a little first-day-of-pads excitement (talkative veteran defensive lineman Mike Daniels called it “productive conflict”) and, in the end, a reconciliation.

“That excited everybody,” said Jones, a second-year safety who showed no fear battling Graham, a five-time Pro Bowl tight end. “I’m just out there having fun. It’s a kids’ game. That just comes with the territory of football and training camp.

“At the end of the day, two competitive people were going at it — and that’s the result. Right after that, I let a few plays go by, but I went up to him and everything’s all good on my end. It’s all love.”

It’s all love. That’s probably an apt way to describe the Rodgers-Graham dynamic, too — even if the duo has yet to connect on a touchdown pass during the competitive 11-on-11 team periods through three days of training camp.

And while neither is concerned about being able to build chemistry with one another in advance of the team’s Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, Graham said that first touchdown in practice will be a key milepost in getting on the same page.

“That’s really when you know,” Graham said. “(But) we’ll just keep plugging away. We’ll just keep doing that each and every day. And come Week 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … we’ll be clicking, I’m pretty sure.”

The Packers surely need that to happen, especially without Rodgers’ closest friend and most experienced pass-catcher, Jordy Nelson, having been cut during the offseason.

Graham figures to be one of Rodgers’ go-to guys in the red zone — last year in Seattle, all 10 of Graham’s touchdown catches came from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line — and head coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers have talked about wanting Graham to be a greater force between the 20s, too.

McCarthy has long believed that his system is its most productive when he has a big, athletic tight end in his repertoire, and once Rodgers and Graham get a feel for one another, the Packers offense should take off. That’s what happened two years ago, when the Packers signed another athletic tight end, Jared Cook, in free agency and he finally got healthy after an early-season ankle injury.

Cook’s emergence that year — culminating in his sideline catch against Dallas to set up the game-winning field goal to send the Packers to the NFC Championship Game — coincided with Rodgers’ infamous run-the-table comment, and both the Packers and Cook seemed to have regrets about not getting a new deal done after that season.

Instead, the Packers added Martellus Bennett hoping he could replicate Cook’s success, and it backfired.

They didn’t generate a ton of plays before Rodgers broke his collarbone — Bennett had just 24 receptions for 233 yards and no touchdowns — and before Bennett’s mysterious shoulder injury led to his release.

“We just need more reps,” Rodgers said of getting on the same wavelength as Graham. “He’s a big target, he catches the ball with his hands. We haven’t had a guy like that around here in a while. Obviously Jared did a lot of those things, but Jimmy, he’s got a great feel for coverages, getting open, he uses his body really well, runs good routes. And he’s a matchup issue. We haven’t had a consistent matchup issue guy like that for a long time.

“So we just need reps together. He needs to hear the language, he needs to hear some of the code words and the verbiage and the signals. I’m not worried about any chemistry issues with him.”

For his part, Graham can’t seem to get enough of his new quarterback.

Whether it was his answer about what he likes most about the offense (“12,” he replied) or comparing him to the two elite-level quarterbacks he’s already played with (New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Seattle’s Russell Wilson), Graham seems genuinelyexcited about what the duo could do.

“I’ve played with some pretty good quarterbacks, and Aaron, he’s just a special arm,” Graham said. “Where he puts us on the sideline, where he throws us back shoulder is pretty unbelievable. For me, I’m not going to compare him to anybody I’ve played with. Aaron’s in his own category.

“I mean, it’s easy to catch it. He throws it perfect, you know what I mean? I can’t even drop the thing. It just hits me in the chest. We’ll see. It’s something that we’ll keep working on. This is the third (practice). It will be awesome to really open the playbook up and really see it all together.

“His ability to change and do anything – because he’s that smart, he has the ability if he sees something and knows to put us in the right situation, to put us in the right block, to change complete formations on plays. That dynamic is special to be able to do that on any play he wants to, basically. He’s such a smart guy, as everyone knows here, it’s been pretty incredible just to see his attention to detail and just how much knows not only about the defense but about what play to call and what to change. It’s pretty awesome.”

Also impressive to Graham: Rodgers’ ability to throw the ball with such precision that the ball location protects his receivers from dangerous hits.

“I know when he leads me out there that I can just run right through it. I’ve got no worries in the world because I know he’s the eyes in the back of my head,” Graham said. “We’ll just keep working on that. It’s not him getting on my page, it’s me getting on his page, you know? He’s been in this league a long time, knows too much, and I’ve got to just catch up and just learn every day and make sure I’m supposed to be where I’m at so I can make that catch and make that big play.”

As for his disagreement with Jones, Graham said the two had no issues going forward, and their disagreement was nothing compared to some of the back-and-forths he had with Seahawks’ nasty “Legion of Boom” defenses of past years.

“I’ve been in way worse,” Graham said with a smile. “We’re all family in here. We’re going to take care of each other.

“I’m just a competitive player, a physical player, I think. We’re all just trying to be out there competing and challenging each other on everything. (So) it’s either he’s holding me, or I’m pushing off. It’s always going to be like that, especially with a big guy like myself. I have a tendency to get away with a lot of stuff like that.”

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