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Tight end will have role to play in Packers' offensive multiplicity

Green Bay expects Jimmy Graham to bounce back in a big way

TE JImmy Graham
TE JImmy Graham

GREEN BAY – As his first season with the Packers drew to a close, Jimmy Graham couldn't help but feel a bit unfulfilled.

It was a challenging year for the five-time Pro Bowl tight end. Although Graham played in all 16 games, he was hampered by a lingering knee injury and broken thumb suffered in Week 11 against Seattle.

Despite finishing with 636 receiving yards – the most by a Packers tight end in six years – Graham had higher expectations for his first season in Green Bay.

"I've always dominated everywhere I went," said Graham in December. "Obviously, I haven't done that yet here, so it would be nice to get an opportunity to do it – come back, and kind of be more comfortable here."

The organization – and his quarterback – agreed. Leading up to the Packers' regular-season finale against Detroit, Aaron Rodgers told reporters he'd "like to start back fresh and see if we can find ways to use him consistently every week."

At February's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and last week's NFL Annual Meetings in Phoenix, General Manager Brian Gutekunst and Head Coach Matt LaFleur voiced their commitment to Graham and his role moving forward.

History is on Graham's side when it comes to encores. His production spiked during his second season with New Orleans. Graham went from having 31 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns as rookie in 2010 to 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns during an All-Pro campaign in 2011.

In 2016, his second season with the Seattle Seahawks, Graham's numbers jumped from 48 catches for 605 yards and two TDs to 65 receptions for 923 yards and six touchdowns. His 14.2 yards per catch that year marked the highest average of his career.

The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end showed that same playmaking ability at times last season, catching six passes for 95 yards against Minnesota in Week 2 and then making five receptions for 104 yards in a 33-30 win over San Francisco.

"I think Jimmy brings it every week, I really do," Gutekunst said. "If you watch the tape and watch other tight ends around the league, he's a pretty solid blocker. Obviously, he's been a dynamic receiver. He's a good player all around."

LaFleur appreciates the dimension tight ends bring to the offense. As the offensive play-caller last year in Tennessee, LaFleur had big plans for three-time Pro Bowler Delanie Walker prior to him suffering a significant leg injury in the Titans' opener.

However, LaFleur didn't abandon the position after the loss of Walker. Instead, he turned to the quartet of Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, Luke Stocker and MyCole Pruitt, who combined for 63 catches for 750 yards and seven touchdowns.

A steady diet of big-play receivers, versatile running backs and multiple-tight-end pairings makes up LaFleur's core philosophy. He wants to throw a barrage of attacks at a defense regardless of whether it's "22" personnel, with two running backs and two tight ends, or "12" personnel of one running back and two tight ends.

"I love multiple personnel groupings," LaFleur said. "The more the defense has to prepare for, I think the harder it is for them to focus on exactly what it is we're trying to get done. But yeah, it's not just Jimmy Graham, though. It's that whole dynamic of that tight end group. I would love to be able to be multiple and be '22' personnel, be '13' personnel and now here comes '11' or '21.'"

Keeping multiplicity in mind, the Packers also re-signed veteran Marcedes Lewis early in free agency and tendered a contract to second-year tight end Robert Tonyan, who caught a 54-yard TD in the same Seahawks game Graham injured his thumb.

Rodgers, in the same media scrum in which he stumped for Graham's return, was effusive in his praise of Lewis late last season and what the 34-year-old tight end brought to Green Bay's locker room after signing with the Packers last May.

Gutekunst felt the former Pro Bowler possessed the type of skill set that would complement LaFleur's offense. There also is some familiarity with Lewis having previously played for new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett in Jacksonville.

Tonyan, a former undrafted free agent and converted receiver, is the wildcard of the group. One of four tight ends the Packers kept on the roster throughout all of last season, Tonyan only played 67 offensive snaps but flashed serious upside.

"He made great strides last year not only as a receiver but as a blocker as well," Gutekunst said. "Hopefully, we'll continue to see that trend. He obviously did some things last year, earned some opportunity there. We're excited about Robert Tonyan."

It's possible the Packers could dip into the draft later this month to augment the position, especially considering it's been nearly four years since the last time Green Bay drafted a tight end – UAB's Kennard Backman in 2015.

This could be the year to do it. The Packers have 10 picks, including three in the first 44 selections, and this year's class of tight ends is considered one of the best in recent memory.

"This is the fun time of the year for me to get in the room with the guys and grind tape, and see how we can improve our football team," Gutekunst said. "I certainly feel like what we can do now is probably a little bit more flexible than what we could have if we didn't do what we did in free agency. I'm excited. I think we can help our football team."