Bears Insider

Hoge: Why Jesse James shouldn’t lose reps to Jimmy Graham

Bears Insider

The Chicago Bears have an interesting decision to make at tight end this week.

Getting production out of the tight end position has been a struggle this season, but against the 49ers last week — in Justin Fields’ best game of the season — he targeted his tight ends nine times and completed six of those passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. 

A week earlier, against the Bucs, Fields targeted his tight ends 10 times and completed eight passes for 63 yards. 

It’s not like these numbers are mind-blowing, but they are an improvement over the rest of the season. 

And it’s notable that Jimmy Graham didn’t play in either of those games.

Let’s play the blind resumé game:

Tight end A: 6 receptions, 6 targets, 58 yards, 1 touchdown, 9.67 yards/target, 64 snaps

Tight end B: 1 reception, 3 targets, 11 yards, 0 touchdowns, 3.67 yards/target, 99 snaps

If you had to divvy up playing time between those two players in Monday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would you put on the field?

Tight end A is Jesse James. Tight end B is Jimmy Graham. And it should be noted that those numbers from James are just in the last two games when James was filling in for Graham. His role prior to that — which includes a total of 108 snaps on the season — was primarily as an extra blocking tight end.

But it still raises an important question: is James better suited for Graham’s position than Graham is? And yes, this is where the conversation goes back to the chemistry Fields developed with the second- and third-stringers in training camp. 

 

“With the amount of reps we got in camp — right when (James) got here — he was pretty much running with my group every rep,” Fields said. “I think we got a connection built there, just that foundation.”

But Fields didn’t really get the opportunity to continue that connection until Week 7 in Tampa. In the last two games, he’s completed 6-of-6 passes to James, including an impressive 8-yard touchdown throw on the run against the 49ers. Fields’ only other touchdown to a tight end this season went to Jesper Horsted in Las Vegas. 

Graham’s 2021 season has been odd. He was a possible cap casualty in the offseason, but instead of saving $7 million against the salary cap by releasing him, the Bears restructured his contract so he’ll carry a $4.6 million dead cap hit in 2022. That seemed potentially justifiable considering the 35-year-old caught nine touchdowns last season, but eight weeks into 2021, he has only one catch and it came back in Week 1. 

Thus, the Bears have to at least examine why James managed six catches and a touchdown the last two weeks with Graham on the reserve/COVID-19 list. 

When asked about Fields’ budding chemistry with James Thursday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy responded:

“I think that’s a really good point. You see that. You feel it. That throw he made rolling to his left, first play of the third quarter — Jesse is a big target. He’s got long arms. And they do have that connection. They played together in the preseason. They had a couple of throwbacks, right, early (in the preseason), down the sideline. And so I think that’s natural to have that.”

But Nagy was quick to shift the conversation back to Graham, who is back at practice this week.

“We get a heck of a tight end coming back too in Jimmy Graham. He’s one of the best to ever do it at that position, so we feel really good having those three guys,” Nagy said. “When you have a rapport with a guy, it’s important to keep that, and those guys have that and we’ll see where it goes.”

It will be interesting to see how the tight end reps are split against the Steelers. Cole Kmet will continue to get the majority of the reps and targets as the No. 1 tight end, but if Fields has a trustworthy target in James, it seems silly to reduce his snaps. He played 54 percent of the snaps (38) against the 49ers. Graham’s season-high in a game is 25 snaps (39 percent against the Raiders). 

“By throwing so many routes to (James), I can kind of just tell where his body is gonna be,” Fields said. “He has a wide range where he's long. He can go up and get it. Of course you guys saw Sunday he can go down low and catch the ball also. That connection was based in camp.”

 

The Bears can’t change the lack of reps Fields received with the starters in training camp, but they can change the future reps he gets with the players he’s comfortable with. Jesse James is the perfect example.

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