Although the Chicago Bears signing Jimmy Graham was largely seen as one of the strangest free agent signings of the early period, don’t be surprised if he makes a big impact. Too many are judging the big tight end on his raw stat line in 2019, without looking at context. Even more people are using lazy narratives. Yes, Graham’s statistics were down. The 38 catches and 447 yards he had in 2019 were both the second-lowest totals of his career. But Graham’s decreased production was more about a lack of opportunity.
Outside of maybe quarterback, no position was more impacted by the scheme change the Packers underwent last year than tight end. TEs have certainly had success in the style of offense Matt LaFleur runs but they’re also asked to block more. If there is one knock on Graham that has followed him his whole career it’s that he’s a horrendous blocker. As a result, he went from playing 74 percent of the snaps in 2018 to 58 percent in 2019. Blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis saw an increase from 18 percent to 45.
Graham caught 63.3 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2019, which is in line with his career average, as was his 11.8 yards per catch.
The narrative that has been spun is that Graham can no longer run. While he’s certainly not as fast as he was when the New Orleans Saints essentially used him as a wide receiver, he can still get down the field. According to Sharp Football, the Packers had 12 explosive plays from the tight end position, accomplishing them at the eighth-best rate in the league (the Bears were 32nd with one explosive play from the tight end position). Of those 12, Graham had nine and had the ninth-best rate at the position.
The other top two tight ends in free agency, Eric Ebron and Austin Hooper ranked 21st and 22nd, respectively. (By the way, doesn’t anybody wonder why a generally intelligent GM in Chris Ballard just let Ebron walk without even considering bringing him back? Just throwing that out there.)
The Bears need more explosive plays and they need a tight end who can get down the field, Graham can still do that and he showed it in the playoffs.
In the two shots below, you can see examples of Graham beating linebackers for big gains. It’s important to note the time it took because, while both plays were relatively well-blocked, neither were the result of horrendous pass rush or broken plays. Both came within the concept of the play, as it was designed.
Graham isn’t the player he once was. He has become stiff and his blocking has, somehow, gotten worse. But he can still get down the field and make plays in the passing game. That’s what the Bears need from the position. If the goal is to become more explosive, signing Graham accomplishes that for the Bears.