It has been a disappointing last few weeks for the Chicago Bears following their quick exit from the 2021 NFL playoffs, followed by the controversial decision to keep general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy. With all the negative criticism the team has faced this season due to their lack of offense, one move the Bears did get right was the signing of tight end Jimmy Graham. When the Bears signed Graham in march of 2020, many fans and media members believed it was wasted money, but the Pro Bowl tight end proved his critics wrong.
Chicago Utilized Graham Perfectly In 2020
When the Bears signed Graham to a two-year deal worth 16 million dollars, the overall consensus was that the team spent too much money on a player that was past his prime. The tight end had spent the previous two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, where he underperformed as their starting tight end. Graham had been named to the Pro Bowl in 2017 with the Seattle Seahawks while hauling in 10 touchdown catches. When he joined the Packers in 2018, many believed that the level of production would continue with Aaron Rodgers. Graham failed to live up to the heightened expectations as he only caught five touchdown passes and had 93 receptions over the two seasons in Green Bay.
— FantasyPros (@FantasyPros) March 17, 2020
What made Graham’s 2020 season so much more different from his previous two seasons in Green Bay was how the Bears utilized him. Pace understood what made the tight end so effective when he was with the Saints and was regarded as the best tight end in the NFL back in 2013. Instead of relying on Graham to be the number one tight end, Nagy split the responsibilities of the starting tight end between the veteran and rookie tight end Cole Kmet. The former All-Pro tight end was targeted in the red zone or an underneath target, while kmet was more so used as the blocking tight end and down-field threat over the middle.
Jimmy Graham with the touchdown.
— Adam Rank (@adamrank) October 9, 2020
The mistake the Packers made with Graham was using him as an all-purpose tight end who could make catches both underneath and down the field. Within the first three games of the season, the former Miami Hurricanes tight end caught three touchdowns that all came within the red zone. Chicago utilized Graham’s large size and got him in situations where he could use his large frame. Of the tight end’s eight touchdown catches in 2020, four touchdowns came on plays in which the quarterback threw a fade into the end zone lined up with one defender.
In his first season with the Chicago Bears, Jimmy Graham finished with the third most touchdowns by a TE in the NFL with 9.
— Daniel Greenberg (@ChiSportUpdates) January 11, 2021
Graham’s Presence Made The Difference For A Struggling Offense
Graham’s resurgent success at the tight end position was much impactful for the Bear,s given the low production they had received a year prior. In 2019, five Bears’ tight ends combined for 44 receptions and a total of two touchdowns. This season, Graham caught 50 passes for 456 yards and averaged over nine yards per catch. The role of the tight end is vital in Nagy’s passing attack as the tight end can serve as a deep threat over the middle or an underneath target. The main goal is to draw the coverage of opposing linebackers to help free up the running back in the passing game.
Bears tight ends now have 5 touchdown receptions on the year (Jimmy Graham 4, Cole Kmet 1). In 2019, Bears TEs caught just 2 TD passes, tied for fewest in the NFL.
— Jeff Dickerson (@DickersonESPN) October 18, 2020
Due to the Bears’ futile production at the tight end position in 2019, the team failed to get their running backs consistently involved in the passing game. With Graham’s success early on, it led to running back David Montgomery and Kmet becoming more open and productive as the season went on. The rookie tight end and Montgomery combined for over 40 receptions in the team’s final six games. Their success attributed to the Bears’ offense that averaged 30 points in those six games.
Due to the success of other players, Nagy and the Bears offensive coaching staff began to use Graham in different ways towards the end of the season. Against Jacksonville, the tight end caught two touchdown passes where he was the second passing option and got open due to another player’s route. This lead to Graham’s five-yard touchdown catch and his 22-yard touchdown grab. Against the Saints in the playoffs, the tight end made a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch as time expired. Again credit should be given to the Bears’ coaching staff as they utilized Graham in a one-on-one situation down the field
There were several things that the Bears organization got wrong in 2020, but they do deserve credit for what they got correct, including the signing of Graham. Pace and Nagy developed a plan that used the tight end perfectly this season in selected roles that maximized his best attributes. There is no guarantee of what happens with Graham this offseason, but Chicago does have a blue print of how to use him if they bring him back for the 2021 season.