GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham first hatched the idea years ago, at the annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
While Rodgers completed more passes to himself (one, for a 15-yard loss) than he did to Graham (zero) that afternoon in Honolulu in January 2012, the Green Bay Packers quarterback and then-New Orleans Saints tight end made a different sort of connection that week.
And now, six years later, their pie-in-the-sky, wouldn’t-it-be-fun thought has become a reality.
“I’ve been a fan of Jimmy’s for a long time,” Rodgers said during an interview with 102.9 FM The Hog in Milwaukee last week, during the annual Bob & Brian Radiothon to benefit Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer. “We got to know each other at the Pro Bowl (and) actually talked about how fun it would be to play together at some point. So it’s great having him in.”
No matter how bothered Rodgers is about losing his favorite receiver and closest friend on the team, Jordy Nelson — and the two-time NFL MVP has mentioned his disappointment multiple times — he surely must be excited about Graham, the 31-year-old five-time Pro Bowl tight end who signed a three-year, $30 million deal last month after five seasons with the Saints and three with the Seattle Seahawks.
Rodgers even reportedly recruited Graham in free agency before he officially signed with the Packers on March 16.
Although Graham might not be the same dominant force he was for the Saints from 2011 through 2014 — when he caught at least 85 passes in each of those four seasons and averaged 89 receptions for 1,099 yards and 11 touchdowns per season — he still is a major red-zone threat, having caught 10 touchdown passes last season in Seattle. Of his 10 touchdowns, none come from outside the opponent’s 20-yard line and seven of them were from inside the 5-yard line.
Considering that Nelson was one of Rodgers’ go-to guys near the end zone — no quarterback-receiver tandem in Packers history had more scoring connections than the 65 Rodgers-to-Nelson touchdowns they had together — Rodgers presumably will gravitate toward Graham in such situations this season.
“Jimmy, he’s a major matchup issue, and that’s the way we’re going to utilize him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy explained at the annual NFL Meetings last month in Florida. “You go back and look at the video of him in Seattle, I thought his red-zone production and the way (the Seahawks) used him up there was kind of the vision that I have for him in our offense.”
The Packers will need more from Graham elsewhere on the field as well, however — and McCarthy intends to put his athleticism to use outside the red zone, too.
McCarthy has long emphasized the importance of having a big, athletic tight end to take advantage of the middle of the field and to use his speed down the seam. And while Graham, who turns 32 in November, might not be as fast as he was coming out of Miami (Fla.) in 2010 — he ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine — his 6-foot-7, 265-pound frame still makes him hard to guard.
McCarthy emphasized the value of Graham being a “multi-positional” player because the game has become “so matchup-based with the rule changes” that have opened up the middle of the field.
“(It’s) just the basic football principles. I mean, the completion right in front of the quarterback is the one you’ve got to make sure you’re giving a lot of opportunities. Big targets running through the middle of the field, in front of the quarterback, higher completion percentage. That’s Football 101, in my view,” McCarthy explained.
“Someone like Jimmy that has the diversity to split out and play the 1 position as a receiver, play the 2 and the 3, and do all the movement stuff — it obviously gives you the ability to take advantage of his ability to get down the middle of the field, create matchups. At the end of the day, I don’t think you can ever have enough playmakers running through the middle of the field.”
McCarthy acknowledged that blocking isn’t Graham’s strong suit, and having allowed veteran tight end Richard Rodgers to leave via free agency — he took an inexpensive one-year deal from the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles that the Packers could have easily matched had they wanted to keep him — the tight end position remains a need entering the April 26-28 NFL draft.
But for now, the Packers at least have Graham as the team opens its official offseason program this week.
“Really, when you look at the (tight end) position, you’d like to have flexibility. You’d like to be able to move in and out of your personnel groups,” McCarthy said. “We’ve talked about this continuously over the years. You never want to be one player out of a personnel group when you set a game plan.
“So to have four tight ends, five tight ends on your 53(-man roster) would be ideal because it gives you the flexibility to have different body types, guys that have different skill sets. I don’t think you can have enough of those guys.”