Jimmy Graham was effectively fired for the first time in his life earlier this year. The pink slip came when the Green Bay Packers decided against keeping the 33-year-old tight end for the final year of his contract.
“It’s lit a fire,” Graham said. “I know what player I am, and I know what I can do.”
Much of the analysis of Graham’s two-year, $16 million contract with the Bears — which was made official Thursday — has been about what Graham used to do. He’s tied for 36th on the NFL’s all-time receiving touchdowns list with 74, yet 69 of those came before 2018. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler who’s been both a dominant red zone threat and an explosive down-the-field weapon.
He’s also 33 and showed signs of decline in 2019 with the Packers, catching 38 of 60 targets for 447 yards — the lowest totals of his career since his rookie year. But the Bears still guaranteed him $9 million in an effort to fix their disconcertingly broken tight end room.
So how much does Graham have left in the tank?
He’ll tell you his answer: Plenty.
“This is the best that I’ve ran, this is the fastest I’ve been in the last four or five years,” Graham said, explaining that his knees feel the best they have in a while, too. “So for me, I know when coaches turn on the film, I mean, I know during the season, everybody, pregame or after the game, was always hitting me up telling me how good I looked, how fast I look. For me, that’s everything, my ability to still separate from people and run down seams.
“I know I still have that ability. I showed a little bit of that in the playoffs. But I’m excited. I’m going to get back to being me. I’m going to get back to making big plays and scoring touchdowns because I think I’m somewhere in the top of scoring touchdowns, and I want to continue that. I want to continue climbing that list and get to where I’m supposed to be.”
Graham caught seven passes for 108 yards in Green Bay’s two playoff games, good for an average of 15.4 yards per reception — just like the old Graham, right?
That’s who the Bears hope they’re getting. Not the guy who was targeted fewer than three times in five of the Packers’ 16 games last year. The Bears didn’t make Graham a priority in the spring only to have him be a non-factor in the fall.
But this is the bet the Bears are making at tight end — that Graham still as fast and as explosive as he says he is. The Bears don’t need 2013 Jimmy Graham, catching 16 touchdowns and being a first-team All-Pro. Even 2018 Graham would be fine — 55 catches, 636 yards, though maybe more than two touchdowns.
Can the Bears count on Graham to be that guy as he marches into his mid-30s? We’ll see. Maybe playing in a different sort of tight end-friendly system — which Graham alluded to in mentioning the Chiefs' offense — will rejuvenate his career. Maybe he’ll struggle when he doesn’t have one of three future Hall of Famers (Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers) throwing to him.
But Graham is willing to bet on his arrow pointing more toward “F” than “E.” It seems the Bears are too.
“If I didn’t think I had the ability to dominate this league, then I wouldn’t play anymore,” Graham said. “But I still believe that I have that ability, and I’m going to take each and every day, and take each and every game to prove myself worthy of being on this team, and I’m going to give them everything I got.”