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Saturday Spotlight: Jimmy Graham

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Tight End Jimmy Graham

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Name: Jimmy Graham

Position: Tight End

Number: 80

Age: 33

Time with Bears: 1st season

The Past:

“In my life, there have been a lot of people who weren’t there for me, so to now have people counting on me is awesome.”

In football, there is no position built more on trust than tight end. When blocking, they’re trusted with securing edges that protect quarterbacks from career-ending injuries, and running backs from drive-killing negative runs. On passing plays, they’re often running routes as the 2nd or 3rd read, a safety blanket than when taken out of a play can result in “coverage sacks” or worse, forced throws downfield. There’s a reason players like Travis Kelce and George Kittle are signed to contracts that rival receiver deals (Kittle averages $15 million per year and Kelce $14.3 million per year per spotrac). Take those players away from their respective offenses, and watch the gameplan shift dramatically.

For a long time now, Jimmy Graham has been deadly. It’s worth remembering, though, that Graham is a basketball player in pads.

In 2005, Graham accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Miami to play basketball. Measured at 6-8 in basketball shoes, and weighing a hefty 256 pounds, the young forward was downright cruel on the court. With a shot block that left a shooter red in the face, and a hype that brought energy out of those around him, his highlights look more like Blake Griffin than a future-NFL tight end. On the other end of the court, he was flashy but inconsistent as he averaged 6 points per game in his best (junior) season, mostly on dunks and points in the paint. According to Graham, he had the opportunity to play basketball professionally overseas, but wisely passed and took his athletic career a different direction.

Tribune News Service via Getty I

After his 4th season of college basketball, he stayed at the University of Miami for an additional year to play a season of football for Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon. One major motivator? “Now I can’t foul out. Now I can be as aggressive as I want to be.” His one season of football was mildly productive, but the statistic that jumps off the page is the same that has defined his entire NFL career: 5 touchdowns in 13 games played. Despite just 213 yards receiving, let him go up for a jump ball in the endzone and mark 6 points down when it leaves your quarterback’s hand.

One season of college football has a way of jumping off the page itself. Graham was 1st round talent with serious question marks about football experience. After all, if he’s only spent 1 year with a college playbook, how is he going to learn NFL concepts in time for Sundays? After being passed up in the first two rounds, Graham was taken 95th overall by the reigning Super Bowl Champions New Orleans Saints. The Saints already had stability at tight end with veteran Jeremy Shockey and role player David Thomas at the position, so the risk was minimal if Graham couldn’t develop into an NFL tight end. The Bears had selected Major Wright earlier in the 3rd round, perhaps passing on Graham because they didn’t need a young tight end. After all, Greg Olsen was leading the position and developing such great rapport with newly-acquired quarterback Jay Cutler. Sigh with me, Bears fans.

Speaking of rapport, Graham and Saints quarterback Drew Brees had it. Boatloads of it. Graham didn’t need the “redshirt” rookie season some players do, and was thrown into the Saints depth chart almost immediately. With basketball size and quick moves you wouldn’t expect just looking at him, he spent one year as Shockey’s backup and then took the man’s job, starting 11 games in his second season. He set a career-high 1,310 yards receiving that season, and established himself as one of the premier touchdown threats at the tight end position. Two years later, he led the entire NFL, not only at tight end but at any position, with 16 touchdown receptions.

In his 5 year career with New Orleans, he caught 51 touchdown passes and made 3 Pro Bowls. The Saints had a down year in 2014, and management made the decision to blow the team up. All players not named Drew Brees were now available for trade, even the best tight end in the league not named Gronkowski. The Seattle Seahawks, with two consecutive Super Bowl appearances (one win), had need for a tight end after Zach Miller (not that Zach Miller) failed his physical and Luke Willson continued to underwhelm at the position. Just a year removed from signing a contract making him the highest paid tight end in the league, Graham’s time in New Orleans was like his touchdown passes: up in the air. One blockbuster trade later, and Graham was taking his talents to Seattle.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The connection from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Graham never reached it’s potential in 2015, as the Seahawks’ run-first approach kept Graham blocking at the line of scrimmage rather than leaping for touchdown passes in the endzone. As such, his touchdown production declined sharply. In his first year with the Seahawks, he caught just 2 touchdown passes, one coming against the Chicago Bears and their new head coach John Fox. Graham’s season was cut short with a ruptured patellar tendon, and as with all knee injuries for a player his size, the severity cannot be understated.

His bum knee lagged into the 2016 preseason, but Graham recovered in time to remind the league of his talent. With two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, earned through averaging 721.5 yards and 8 touchdowns per year across his final two years in Seattle, the NFL was put on notice that Jimmy Graham is still one of the best in the business.

In 2018, Graham signed with the Green Bay Packers. He was OK.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Present:

This past offseason, Graham was released from the green and yellow grips of the Packers, and signed a two-year contract worth $16 million total with the Chicago Bears. He makes up 13 of the Bears revamped tight end group, after the departure of Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen this past offseason. Graham will turn 34 years old this November, and the question for a 30-something in a league dominated by 20-somethings is simple: what’s “left in the tank?”

Graham wasted no time answering that question this past Sunday, catching 3 passes and a touchdown in the Bears week 1 victory of the Detroit Lions. The drops are concerning, and 7 targets should yield more than 25 yards receiving. However, his role with the Bears is two-fold; be a safety blanket for 4th-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and assist rookie tight end Cole Kmet with learning the playbook and intricacies of an NFL offense. On the former responsibility, it’s worth noting that Jimmy Graham has played all but 1 NFL season with a Pro Bowl quarterback. He consistently brings out the best in his passers. On the latter responsibility, the rookie has spoken highly of Graham’s mentorship, calling it “great in terms of showing me just all the extra things that you have to do in order to be a great professional.” Bears fans should look forward to every game Graham suits up. He’s a special player.

The future:

According to spotrac, the two-year contract Graham signed with the Bears has a potential out next offseason, with a dead cap hit of $3 million compared to the rostered cap hit of $10 million. With the Bears troubling salary cap situation next year, Graham would need an excellent year to earn that second year with the club. There’s no doubt some difficult decisions will need to be made next offseason. Big names such as Akiem Hicks, Buster Skrine, and Bobby Massie are cut candidates for General Manager Ryan Pace to consider. If the salary cap is lowered due to lost revenue from COVID-19 restrictions, the chopping block gets even longer, and Graham needs a Pro Bowl year to stay off of it. He should look for another year like 2013: 16 touchdowns in 16 games. With 1 touchdown through 1 game played, he’s off to a good start.

In week 2, a lackluster New York Giants defense comes to Chicago for the home opener. Much discussion has been made over the struggles and triumphs of Trubisky. Graham needs to do what he does best, and catch passes that are thrown up for grabs when nobody is truly open. If he can bail Trubisky out of poor decisions, then the Bears offense can stay on the field and their new rushing attack can push the Giants back for all 4 quarters. Look for Graham to save at least 1 drive in this game.

Week 2 prediction:

4 catches, 6 targets, 65 yards, 0 TD