GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy became well acquainted with Jimmy Graham having played against the All-Pro tight end on six occasions and coaching him once before in the Pro Bowl.
During his limited exposure to Graham, the Packers head coach quietly wondered to himself what the 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end might be capable of in Green Bay’s offense.
Now, McCarthy and the Packers are about to find out.
Coming off his fifth Pro Bowl appearance, Graham signed with Green Bay last month as an unrestricted free agent. A veteran of 121 regular-season games, Graham touts one of the most decorated resumes for a tight end in NFL history with 556 receptions for 6,800 yards and 69 touchdowns (tied for fourth-most among tight ends in league history) in eight seasons split between New Orleans and Seattle.
A dynamic member of the Saints’ high-octane offenses from 2009-13, Graham remains the only NFL tight end to ever record two seasons with at least 1,200 receiving yards and more than 10 touchdowns.
After watching Graham’s historic run with Drew Brees, the Packers are excited about the possibilities of pairing Graham with another future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.
“Jimmy is a playmaker. I’ve always admired his game,” said McCarthy at last week’s NFL Owners Meetings in Orlando. “I thought his video last year, particularly in the red zone, was exceptional. He gives us an excellent target and I think him and Aaron will have a great relationship.”
Graham is one of two high-profile signings new Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst has made so far this offseason, along with former All-Pro defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.
Graham’s acquisition fits with one of Green Bay’s core offensive principles over the past decade – finding hybrid players who bring versatility to the offense. McCarthy sees Graham as a guy who can play all three receiver spots and in-line tight end in the Packers’ ‘11’ personnel package.
The Packers have reaped the rewards of the multiplicity over the years with versatile playmakers such as Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery, Jermichael Finley, Jared Cook and Davante Adams emerging as go-to weapons for Rodgers over the years.
When asked in Orlando if McCarthy considers Graham a receiver or tight end, he replied: “Multi-positional.”
“This game is so matchup-based with the rule changes,” McCarthy said. “They’ve opened up the middle of the field quite some time ago, so I think it’s important to do that (and) he has the ability to play outside the numbers. He’s been very productive out there.”
In acquiring Graham, the Packers not only hope to cultivate another threat in the middle of the field, but also a consistent red-zone target. His 10 touchdowns were the most among all NFL tight ends last season.
However, what sold Gutekunst the most on Graham being a good fit for Green Bay was the tight end’s visit with the team prior to the two sides coming to an agreement.
“Jimmy is a very established player in this league,” Gutekunst said. “Once we got him in the building (and hearing) how committed he is to winning, how important it is to him and the kind of guy he is, I think he’ll really add to our locker room and obviously on the field.”
Graham is only one piece of the puzzle for the Packers’ offense, though. Green Bay not only must replace the production and reliability of veteran Jordy Nelson in the offense, but also fill another hole at tight end after former third-round pick Richard Rodgers signed with Philadelphia this past week.
The Packers played the second half of the season primarily with only Lance Kendricks and Rodgers available at tight end following Martellus Bennett’s release in November.
Kendricks had an up-and-down first season in Green Bay. He was a willing blocker, but his 18 catches for 203 yards were career lows for the Milwaukee native and former Wisconsin standout.
Kendricks is slated to return along with former undrafted free agent Emanuel Byrd (who had a 29-yard catch in the Packers’ regular-season finale in Detroit) and converted receiver Robert Tonyan.
Additionally, this year’s draft features some intriguing options at the position, including Penn State’s Mike Gesicki, South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert.
Who the Packers bring in to complement Graham at the position will be decided over the next month. If McCarthy had his druthers, he’d carry four or five tight ends on the roster like the Packers did at times in 2012 and 2013 due to the versatility of the position and possible special-teams contributions.
“When you look at the position, you’d like to have flexibility. You’d like to be able to move in and out of your personnel groups,” McCarthy said. “To have four tight ends, five tight ends on your 53 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.”