Does signing Jimmy Graham in NFL free agency actually make the Bears better?


Jimmy Graham represents an upgrade at tight end for the Bears. 

Then again, a lot of players would be, right?

Graham agreed to sign with the Bears on a two-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, a deal which can be finalized on Wednesday. He’s coming off the least productive season of his 10-year career since 2010, his rookie campaign in New Orleans. 


Graham in 2019: 60 targets, 38 catches, 447 yards (11.8 yards/reception), 3 TDs

All Bears tight ends in 2019: 69 targets, 46 catches, 416 yards (9.0 yards/reception), 2 TDs

Graham, too, hasn’t missed a game since the 2015 season. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton combined to miss 16 games last year.

He has the versatility to play both the “Y” (in-line) and “U” (move) positions, which coupled with his durability might’ve made him a more attractive option for the Bears than, say, Eric Ebron (who’s primarily a “U” and missed five games in 2019). 

(Judging from the reaction on Twitter to the Graham signing, though, you probably didn't come here to read the optimistic viewpoint. But stick with me for a second!)

There is another positive to signing Graham, too: Because he was cut by the Packers, he won’t count against the Bears’ comp pick formula in 2021, possibly helping Ryan Pace secure an additional draft pick (it’s a long way off, though). 

And here’s where we need to note Pace was part of New Orleans’ front office from 2010-2014 while Graham starred for the Saints. Graham was an All-Pro in 2013 — he caught 16 touchdowns that year — but that was, of course, 2013. 

The best-case view of this signing is it’s just another part of Pace’s efforts to overhaul an absolutely horrendous 2019 tight end room. Pace already added versatile reserve Demetrius Harris and could use a draft pick on a tight end to bolster Clancy Barone’s group. 

But the pessimistic — or maybe realistic — view is not exactly rosy for adding Graham, especially for $16 million over two years. Even if “only” $9 million is guaranteed. 

The tape was not kind to Graham in 2019, who hardly looked like the dynamic guy he was when he and Pace were in New Orleans — or even when he went off to Seattle. A particularly damning profile of him, written by ESPN’s Rob Demovsky in October, pointed to Graham failing to reach two hands out on a catchable touchdown pass late in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. 

From that article: 

“He’s declined,” one NFL scout this week. “He’s declined a lot.”

When asked about the fourth-down play, another scout said Graham would’ve made that play two years ago.

“No doubt,” the scout said. “Now it’s probably a 50-50 [play] at best.”

Also, just because Graham can play the "Y" doesn't mean he'll be a run blocking upgrade, either. Pro Football Focus graded him as roughly an average run blocking tight end in 2019.

Can the Bears even count on Graham being the same guy he was in 2019 in 2020? It's hardly a guarantee. And if Graham's decline continues, this signing will not be looked at favorably. 

Or, maybe more accurately: It'll continue to not be looked at favorably. Unless you're Dwyane Wade! 

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