Jimmy Graham

NFL rumors: Packers' Jimmy Graham expected to hit free agent market

NFL rumors: Packers' Jimmy Graham expected to hit free agent market

NFL teams in need of a tight end could find another really good player hitting the open market later this month.

NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday that Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham is expected to become an unrestricted free agent.

Graham, 33, tallied 38 receptions for 447 yards and three touchdowns last season. It was his second campaign with the Packers. He also has been pretty durable later in his career with zero games missed the past four years.

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A few likely playoff contenders are in need of a talent upgrade at tight end, including the New England Patriots. The Patriots did a poor job in 2019 replacing Rob Gronkowski's offensive production at tight end. Patriots tight ends Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo combined for just 36 receptions, 418 yards and two touchdowns last season.

The Patriots would be wise to select a tight end (or two) in the draft. They are projected to have 12 picks (including compensatory selections) in the seven rounds. That said, adding a veteran tight end to the roster who could make an immediate impact also would be a smart move as the Patriots try to rebound from an underwhelming offensive season in 2019. Graham will be among the best tight end free agents if he hits the market.

The legal tampering period begins March 16, with free agency officially beginning March 18.

Graham could provide Gronk insurance for Pats

Graham could provide Gronk insurance for Pats

Before free-agency kicks off with the start of the new league year on March 14, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. First up: Can the Patriots protect themselves at tight end by going after Jimmy Graham?

This could be one of the toughest spots for Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio to come up with a free-agency plan. Everything hinges on Rob Gronkowski's desire to play football in 2018. 

If the team believes Gronkowski will be back, the job of the Patriots front office is simplified. He's the No. 1. Martellus Bennett is gone and Dwayne Allen could end up as a cap casualty -their releases combined would save the Patriots more than $11 million on the salary cap - meaning the search would then be on for a No. 2. (The Patriots have Jacob Hollister and Will Tye under contract, though it remains to be seen if the team would ask either to be Gronkowski's primary backup.) Luke Willson of the Seahawks, Trey Burton of the Eagles and Ben Watson of the Ravens, a Patriots first-round pick in 2004, would all make some sense as Gronkowski sidekicks with some receiving skills. If it's a blocker the Patriots want, they could turn to Virgil Green of the Broncos of Anthony Fasano of the Dolphins. Or they could figure out a way to make things work with Allen or Bennett on cheaper deals. 

If Gronkowski can't be counted on for next season, then things get complicated. Obviously. Perhaps Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert would make some sense given he has the skill set to be a legitimate top option at the position. And he shouldn't break the bank. But the reason he won't break the bank -- his extensive injury history -- might be enough to keep the Patriots away. Austin Seferian-Jenkins certainly gave the Patriots some issues in Week 6 of last season -- he would've had two scores had it not been ruled he fumbled out of the end zone -- but he's been consistently inconsistent in his first four seasons. If Eric Ebron of the Lions or Vance McDonald of the Steelers aren't released for salary-cap purposes, then there's really only one other tight end with a history of NFL production who's available and resembles anything close to a No. 1 . . . Graham. 

In 16 games last season, Graham caught 57 passes on 92 targets for 520 yards and 10 scores. Though the double-digit touchdown number is a reminder of what Graham was able to do in his prime, his yards per catch (9.1) were a career-low, and his receiving yardage total was the lowest he's accumulated since his rookie season. Headed into his ninth season, Spotrac.com projects the 31-year-old could earn a deal that pays him $6.7 million annually. That would put him right in the range of what Bennett and Delanie Walker received on their latest deals, which they signed when they were 30 and 31, respectively. 

Is that a number the Patriots would be willing to offer up to Graham if Gronkowski was out of the picture? Understanding that's one of the largest "ifs" the Patriots have faced in franchise history, it still doesn't feel like an investment they would make. Graham, though he showed improvement as a blocker during his time in Seattle, falls under the category of "big receiver" rather than "dual-threat tight end." Even if the Graham-for-Gronkowski swap was made, the Patriots offense would be significantly altered because their skill sets are so disparate. 

So, what's left in terms of options? The Patriots could start over at the position through the draft. (Given Gronkowski's recent waffling, they could see the value in spending a top pick for insurance at that spot whether Gronkowski's back or not.) They could also adjust their offense based on the personnel already on the roster. The Patriots were as effective in two-back and two-tight end sets as any team in football last season, but perhaps they'd lean more heavily on their 11-personnel groups if Gronkowski isn't available. They could even go with more four-wide sets to take advantage of their depth at receiver. Frequently going four-wide feels like a long shot, but if Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, pending free agent Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt (who is reportedly expected to do "big things...") are back and healthy, perhaps it's an option?

The bottom line is that if Gronkowski is out, the offense is going to look very different regardless of who comes in to take his place. Starting fresh in the draft with a player whose style Belichick likes - someone who can impact both the running and passing games - is probably the wisest move. A hefty investment in a big receiver like Graham, one who's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, doesn't seem like it would be worth the cost.

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Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today. we're looking at a position where the Patriots have arguably the best player that’s ever manned it in his presumed prime. But tight end is suddenly a tenuous spot for New England.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


This became – contrary to the Patriots hopes – a one-man position. Rob Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. The rest of the tight ends – Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Martellus Bennett – combined for 20 catches and six of those came from Bennett who played just two games before heading to injured reserve. Gronk was – and is – the best tight end in the game and one of its most dominating offensive weapons. After losing Julian Edelman in the preseason, the Patriots offense became tremendously Gronk-reliant. They got away with it. But they clearly wanted more from Dwayne Allen than what they got or they wouldn’t have gone after Bennett when he became available.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, Will Tye, Jacob Hollister

WHO IS NOT?
All tight ends on the roster are under contract.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Publicity grab or legitimate consideration? What exactly to make of Gronk’s reported dalliance with the WWE and his idle desire to be an action movie star (also reported)? Both have the earmarks of brand-building genius. It’s a page torn from the business plans of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Sugar Ray Leonard or Conor McGregor – ruminating on retirement and expressing interest in other public pursuits exponentially ratchets up public interest in both the main gig and the potential side gig. Gronk himself might not be that savvy and calculating to mildly hold the Patriots fortunes hostage but Gronk Inc. certainly is. Then again, maybe he legitimately is weighing it. The “will he or won’t he” conversation will sustain buzz and has to in some way impact the Patriots’ offseason plans. The presumption has to be that Gronk returns but this is anything but a layup. Which means the need is a Level-8

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There is a nice crop of tight ends hitting the market. Virtually all of them come with the same nagging health issues that Gronk has (had). Jimmy Graham is the biggest name in the group. His tepid blocking skills may make him unattractive to the Patriots, but never let it be said the Pats don’t like to take a flier on a once-electric player who’s on the backside. At 31, Graham’s coming off a 10-touchdown season, though his yards per catch went down to 9.1. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see New England pursue. The Eagles' second tight end, Trey Burton, is 26 and stuck behind Zach Ertz. An undrafted rookie, the kid who threw the touchdown pass to Nick Foles in the Super Bowl is targeted sparingly in Philly but is a smooth player. He also plays special teams (boing!). Austin Sefarian-Jenkins finally got his stuff together with the Jets in 2017 and he’s only 25. He’s no dummy, he’s only acted like one in the past and it seems like he’s got a handle on it now. He’d need face-to-face vetting but he’s got upside. Then there’s Tyler Eifert. Still just 27, Eifert’s played in 10 games the past two seasons and had season-ending back surgery in the fall (it was performed by the same doctor who treated Gronk). He’s played 39 games in five seasons. Terrific talent. Always broken.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


I like this Dallas Goedert kid from South Dakota State. Also, Dalton Schultz from Stanford gets checkmarks as a blocker and competent receiver. Neither of them are first-round prospects at this point. Hayden Hurst from South Carolina and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews are regarded as the top prospects. Hurst is a very good pass-catcher with a huge catch radius. He’s a 24-year-old former Pittsburgh Pirates draftee. Andrews is smooth as a receiver but not seen as a potent blocker. Same with Mike Gesicki from Penn State who’s the best athlete along with Hurst but doesn’t impress with his blocking.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Assuming Gronk is returning, the Patriots can go at it a number of ways. There’s not a “can’t miss” prospect out there, so drafting Hurst or Gesicki in the first couple of rounds means they’ll have to live with the shortcomings or hope they can improve them. Given other needs, they may not want to spend on “maybes” near the top of the draft. Too many drafts have been like that, especially with second-rounders. It seems unlikely they’ll be really interested in counting on either Allen or Bennett to provide anything in 2018. If they take a run at the Eagles’ Burton and pay him a crapload, Gronk will lose his mind. Screw it. They should take Hurst. We will change our minds several times between now and April but that’s where we are now.

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