Super Bowl titles are never won in March. Free agents are signed during that month that can help build a team into a contender, but too often the teams that make the most noise in free agency are sitting at home once the playoffs get under way in January.
The Green Bay Packers rarely made a splash under former GM Ted Thompson. New GM Brian Gutekunst vowed to change that and he did when the Pack signed TE Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract this offseason.
The Packers were hoping that Graham would come in and give QB Aaron Rodgers the best target he’s had at the tight end position since Jermichael Finley suffered a career-ending injury back in 2013. They also expected Graham to give the Packers an elite red-zone target that would help Rodgers replace Jordy Nelson, the receiver he always looked for when the team got close to pay dirt. Unfortunately for the Packers, Graham has not delivered yet in either area. Through five games, Graham has scored just one touchdown.
Instead, the Packers have gotten a good but not great tight end who can no longer stretch the field and make impact plays. Graham will be 32 next month. At this stage in his career, he seems to be a serviceable tight end with a large frame and wing span but not a difference maker. That is not a player worth an average of $10 million per season.
The loss in Detroit in Week 5 clearly illustrated Graham’s inability to be an impact player at this stage of his career. The Packers entered the game without two of their three experience wide receivers. They knew they would need a big performance from Graham to pick up the slack and give Rodgers a target he would be comfortable throwing to besides Davante Adams. They would especially need Graham in the red zone where the field is condensed and experience vital to gain just enough separation to get open for a score.
But on game day, Graham didn’t step up. Sure, statistically, he did OK, finishing with six catches for 76 yards but two of those catches came in garbage time, well after the outcome had been decided. More importantly, Graham didn’t come through in the red zone or in clutch situations.
A review of the coach’s film from the Detroit game shows how often Graham struggled to separate from man-to-man coverage by a single cornerback or safety. Keep in mind the Lions had their best cover man, Darius Slay, lined up almost exclusively on Adams throughout the game. Despite not facing the opposing team’s best, Graham still struggled to get open and he didn’t excel in the red zone.
Here are two key examples. With 3:53 left in the 2nd quarter and the Lions leading 17-0, Green Bay had the ball 2nd & goal at the Detroit 4. Graham lined up wide to the left as part of a four-receiver set. Detroit covered Graham with Teez Tabor who stands 6-foot tall compared to Graham’s 6’7”. At the snap, Graham drove into Tabor and then attempted to turn around to catch the back shoulder throw that Rodgers delivered. Unfortunately, Graham lacked the athleticism to turn his body quickly enough to get into position to make the catch and the ball fell incomplete.
Early in the third quarter with the Packers trailing 24-0, Green Bay had first-and-10 at the Detroit 22. Graham lined up wide right and was covered man-to-man by Nevin Lawson of Detroit. Lawson blanketed Graham initially. As Rodgers scrambled, Graham released downfield and headed to the end zone but still failed to gain any separation. Rodgers threw up a jump ball about a yard deep in the end zone. Although Graham is 10 inches taller than Lawson, he was unable to position himself to gain an advantage and make the reception and the pass again fell incomplete.
Although Graham hasn’t lived up to his lucrative contract thus far, there are still reasons for hope. For one, Graham and Rodgers haven’t had much time to develop much chemistry. Rodgers barely played at all in the preseason and has not practiced much since injuring his knee in the first half of the season opener against Chicago. If Rodgers is healthier and gets more practice time, he and Graham should see themselves on the same page more often during games.
Graham has also been banged up himself. The big tight end has missed midweek practices the past two weeks because of a knee injury. When that heals, he may be able to make a few more plays than he has thus far this season.
Still, the early grades on Graham are disappointing. The Packers took a chance and signed a 31-year-old tight end and paid him like one of the best players in the league at his position. Thus far, they haven’t gotten an elite performance in return.