GREEN BAY – It was just one play in an OTA, but it was the kind of play that didn't happen last year nearly often enough.
The biggest offensive highlight on Tuesday at Clarke Hinkle Field occurred when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers fired a pass down the middle to tight end Jimmy Graham, who had a half step or so on outside linebacker Preston Smith. Fully stretched out, Graham hauled it in and kept his feet for what would have been a monster gain.
That was the vision a year ago when Graham was added as a big free-agent signing, and while he certainly made a contribution in 2018, 55 catches for 636 yards and two touchdowns wasn't anything close to what he had in mind.
Now the veteran tight end and five-time Pro Bowler is learning a new offense along with his quarterback, and they're expecting plays like Tuesday's to be just the beginning.
"Coming off of last season, it's important to get him going and feeling comfortable in the offense," Rodgers said after practice. "I think this offense sets up really good for him. It gives him opportunities to win with his routes and then situations like (today), to win with his athletic ability and his speed.
"He has a tremendous catch radius, which you saw on that play, because the ball was pretty inside. He made a great catch on it."
Graham, who rarely speaks to the media, made it clear late last year that his first with Rodgers was subpar by his standards. Normally a dangerous red-zone target, the 6-foot-7, 265-pounder matched his career low with just the two touchdowns, the same as his first season in Seattle in 2015 after five years in New Orleans.
Last weekend at his annual charity cornhole event in Green Bay, Graham told reporters he's out to make up for how last year went, and he's attacking new Head Coach Matt LaFleur's offense with something to prove.
LaFleur is just as fired up about Graham and what he can bring, but he's tempering the approach just a bit to channel all his energy during playbook installation in the most productive fashion possible.
"I think Jimmy's a pro. He's a perfectionist, too, and he gets down on himself when he doesn't do it the right way," LaFleur said. "That's one thing I've challenged him. 'Hey listen, you're out here learning. Mistakes are going to happen. When they happen, everybody's looking at you. You can't blink.'
"I want him to keep a positive outlook whether he's making a great play or he has to have a learning experience from not doing something quite right. I'm really excited about him. I think he brings that veteran presence, especially to that room."
Graham and fellow seasoned pro Marcedes Lewis lead a group of tight ends that also includes second-year man Robert Tonyan, rookie third-round pick Jace Sternberger, and practice-squad holdover Evan Baylis.
Regardless of experience level, chemistry with Rodgers is paramount for all the pass catchers, and the connection between Graham and Rodgers never hit a peak in 2018. Rodgers downplayed the impact their respective knee injuries had in that regard, but the missed practice time by both players throughout the regular season was at least a factor.
The two have spent a lot of time together off the field in Year 2, with Rodgers taking a helicopter ride on Monday with the pilot enthusiast Graham. He added they're constantly in communication.
"That goes with the plays as well, taking clips off the iPad and sending them over, just talking through routes or stems and timing all the time," Rodgers said. "He's an extremely intelligent player. He gets it the first time you hear it.
"With less thinking comes more of a comfort on the field. We both have to get to that point, and when we do I think we're going to be really effective."
Receiver Davante Adams will remain Rodgers' obvious No. 1 target in the passing game in 2019, but it's not out of the question for Graham to emerge as his No. 2.
It's still awfully early, but that's how Rodgers sees the evolution of the offense unfolding, at least for the moment. Nothing against Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Trevor Davis or the other options getting snaps with the first-team offense right now, but if the playbook is built with Adams and Graham as the primary weapons in the passing game, Rodgers would have no objection.
He mentioned he'd rather not rely on scramble plays or third and fourth reads to get the ball to Graham in their second year together, and it sounds like he won't have to.
"This league is about matchups, and that's what I'm liking about this offense is we're constantly trying to find ways to get those guys in positive matchups," Rodgers said. "Every play, whether it's a scheme or a motion or an adjustment that can kind of get those guys opportunities to be No. 1 or 2 in the progression. Because we know, if you're throwing the ball on time, that's where the ball is going to go.
"I expect a big bounce-back year from Jimmy. He's healthy, he's feeling good. This offense I think fits him and his body type."