Desperate for more from the NFL’s least productive TE corps last season, the Bears struck quickly — and curiously — as free agency opened last week, handing 33-year-old Jimmy Graham a reported two-year, $16 million contract including $9M guaranteed and, for good measure, a no-trade clause.
Graham said via conference call Thursday that the fit in Matt Nagy's matchup-based and TE-centric offense, and the chance to reunite with former Saints personnel man GM Ryan Pace were additional selling points. Pace was "part of the belief" New Orleans had in turning the former University of Miami basketball star with only one year of college football experience into a superstar with Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
"The opportunity to go back and play for Ryan Pace and to prove my worth throughout the NFL. I’m hungrier than ever," Graham said. "To be the person I am and to be the player I know I can be. And to go to the NFC championship game and to be so close to the Super Bowl, it just left an extremely bad taste in my mouth."
The Packers recently released Graham two seasons into a three-year, $30 million deal after he averaged 46 catches for 541 yards, plus five total TDs. Green Bay's oldest rivals, Graham said, are getting a supremely motivated player.
"It was a tough pill to swallow. It was the first time I lost my job. ... But for me, it’s lit a fire. I know what player I am and I know what I can do. ... I’m excited for us to get by this as a country so I can get back to work and march my way back up to the top, because I’ve always said, if I didn’t think I had the ability to dominate this league, then I wouldn’t play anymore. 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."
And considering the entire 2019 Bears TE corps totaled 416 receiving yards and 2 TDs on 46 catches, with no individual reaching 100 yards or multiple touchdowns last season, they'll gladly take what Graham's still got.
Pace's decision to quickly reward Graham an $8 million average salary — tied with new teammate Trey Burton’s as sixth-highest among NFL tight ends — is what led to a lot of raised eyebrows. It's not even entirely clear whether the Bears intend to keep Burton on the roster or replace him with Graham, a similar player who does his best work as a receiver detached from the line of scrimmage.
Yet because of the obvious crippling effect of not only subpar QB play but almost nonexistent contributions from one of the most important positions in Nagy’s 29th-ranked scoring offense, it could be that what he and Pace valued the most in Graham — even a shadow of his former five-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro self — is dependability.
While Graham’s overall receiving skills have consistently declined and he’s never contributed much at all as a blocker, he’s appeared in 16 games in six of the past eight seasons, logging at least 695 snaps on offense seven times. It's quite a juxtaposition with Burton's inability to recover from 2019 offseason sports hernia surgery, requiring a recent hip procedure that the Bears hope will finally fix the groin issue that began his mysterious health saga on the eve of the 2018-19 wild-card defeat vs. his former team, and former second-rounder Adam Shaheen's failed development.
"I’m going to be there on the field, I’m going to be there for my teammates and I’m going to be there for the organization and give them every ounce of what I have," Graham said. "So for me this was a great opportunity to prove myself, to show everybody what I can do and the type of player that I am."
Simply Graham's still-imposing 6-foot-7, 265-pound presence could help Nagy’s offense become more efficient — particularly on third down and in the red zone, where it regressed to 24th and 25th last season (down from 12th and 11th, respectively, in 2018) — but Graham's sights seemingly are set even higher, as they should be if he's going to once again make good on Pace's belief.
"This is the best that I’ve ran, this is the fastest I’ve been in the last four or five years," he said. "... 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."