Three Reasons Signing Jimmy Graham Makes Sense

Having apparently gotten a taste for splashy offseason moves, Brian Gutekunst went big on his first free agent signing as general manager of the Green Bay Packers, reeling in former Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

Graham’s reported three-year, $30 million deal would have eaten up most of the Packers’ precious remaining cap space if not for Gutekunst’s corresponding move to release Jordy Nelson.

Nelson, a 2008 second round pick who has played his entire career to date in Green Bay, undoubtedly declined last season. To be sure, some of that was due to Brett Hundley’s unexpectedly large role in the offense, but Nelson’s stats dropped across the board. Not only that, but they dropped much farther and faster than did those of Davante Adams and Randall Cobb.

But Graham’s 2017 effort was not much to write home about either. His 57 receptions were his lowest total in any season in which he played at least 15 games since his rookie year, and his 9.1 yards per catch were an outright career low, as was his 59.4% catch rate.

So why did the Packers pull the trigger on Graham? Why devote essentially the same amount of money to another player coming off a down year? Here are three reasons why the Graham deal makes sense.

1 - Red zone dominance

Though the Seahawks didn't maximize them, Graham’s red zone abilities are nearly matchless in the NFL. After disappointing red zone forays in 2015 and 2016, Seattle suddenly remembered it had a matchup nightmare on its roster and exploited opponents accordingly. All ten of Graham’s 2017 touchdowns came from inside the 20-yard line, and the closer Seattle got to the goal line, the deadlier Graham became.

Graham scored on eight of his 16 targets inside the 10-yard line and three of his five attempts from the 1-yard line, prompting The Ringer’s Danny Kelly to call Graham’s isolation routes “the most unstoppable play in football.”

Checking out the video, it’s easy to see why. Does that back shoulder throw look familiar?

2 - Personnel versatility

Mike McCarthy loves tight ends. Specifically, he loves to deploy his tight ends one at a time with three receivers and a running back, also known as “11” personnel.

Adding Graham to his group of pass catchers gives McCarthy much more flexibility in how he arranges that personnel group on the field.

Peter Bukowski of Acme Packing Company has a great breakdown of the various permutations of personnel groupings possible with Graham on the roster, but the most important takeaway is this: Graham can line up anywhere on the field, increasing the ways the Packers can attack their opponents.

In theory, this should have been possible with Martellus Bennett last season, but he has never been as effective from the slot as Graham, even before the Packers’ medical staff tried to force him to play when he didn’t want to.

3 - Relative youth

Age is a small but significant part of the Graham/Nelson equation. Yes, Graham is only about 18 months younger than Nelson, but that’s noteworthy.

Free agent signings are always about the future: what a player can be expected to bring to a team over the duration of his contract. Given his age and what we saw from Nelson last year, it’s not a big stretch to think he has fewer years left as a capable NFL player than Graham. That’s not a slight against Nelson, it’s just a biological reality.

Even if Graham is little more than a 1-to-1 replacement for Nelson in the offense, having his production for two or three years is preferable to getting one year from Nelson. Ultimately, that’s what this decision comes down to. It’s cold, it’s callous, and it’s dismissive of the career to date of one of the Packers’ all-time greats, but that’s life in the NFL.