GRA­HAM IN LAND OF THE FREES

Vet­eran TE has been im­pres­sive, but it’s way too early

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - MARK POTASH mpotash@sun­times.com | @MarkPo­tash

Of all the nar­ra­tives that jus­ti­fied the Bears’ pur­suit of vet­eran free agents this off­sea­son, the ex­pla­na­tion be­hind the sign­ing of tight end Jimmy Gra­ham was the most cu­ri­ous.

Since lead­ing the NFL with 16 re­ceiv­ing touch­downs, lead­ing all tight ends with 1,215 yards and mak­ing the All-Pro team in 2013, Gra­ham’s pro­duc­tion has been in steady de­cline with three of the best quar­ter­backs in the business: the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Sea­hawks’ Rus­sell Wil­son and the Pack­ers’ Aaron Rodgers.

If he’s de­clin­ing in those of­fenses, how is he go­ing to be bet­ter with Mitch Tru­bisky/ Nick Foles and the Bears? The Bears think he’s a bet­ter fit in Chicago.

“He’s had a hell of a ca­reer, and he’s also grown older,” coach Matt Nagy ac­knowl­edged af­ter Gra­ham was signed. “But when you look at the stuff that he’s do­ing — maybe when he’s not catch­ing the football or not mak­ing a block, you see him within the play do­ing some­thing that you like, and then you vi­su­al­ize that with what you can do with him and how it fits, and that’s the ex­cit­ing part.”

Or, as gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace put it: “I just think there are a lot of dis­cus­sions on how to max­i­mize Jimmy Gra­ham in this of­fense. We’re all re­ally ex­cited about . . . how we are go­ing to max­i­mize him.”

We’ll see about that. Of all the Bears’ vet­eran free-agent sign­ings, Gra­ham seemed to come with the most likely false nar­ra­tive — the least likely to come to be re­al­ized, be­hind:

Robert Quinn is the closer Leonard Floyd wasn’t and will fit in a 3-4 scheme he has ex­pressed dis­dain for pre­vi­ously.

Nick Foles, ac­quired via trade, will thrive in an Andy Reid-de­rived of­fense.

Ted Ginn is as fast as ever.

Ger­main Ifedi was play­ing out of po­si­tion as an of­fen­sive tackle in Seat­tle and will thrive in his best po­si­tion with the Bears at right guard.

Gra­ham’s en­er­getic play in the first three days of padded prac­tices seemed to quell some of that doubt — he looks like he still might have more gas in the tank than we thought. And he sounds like it, too. Gra­ham’s en­gag­ing tele­con­fer­ence with re­porters this week was a far cry from his ret­i­cence in Green Bay, where he was fined for vi­o­lat­ing the league’s me­dia-ac­cess pol­icy. So add “Jimmy Gra­ham is in a bet­ter frame of mind” to the “bet­ter fit” nar­ra­tive.

Not so fast, though. NFL train­ing camps are rife with false pos­i­tives and spe­cious in­di­ca­tors. Still, the Gra­ham sce­nario al­ready is more en­cour­ag­ing than when he signed, and if you rated the most likely free-agent sce­nar­ios to live up to ex­pec­ta­tions, right now it’s: 1. Ifedi; 2. Gra­ham; 3. Foles; 4. Quinn; and 5. Ginn.

One week of padded prac­tices is too

soon to know for sure, but it’s pos­si­ble that most if not all of them end up in the same cat­e­gory: not the hit they were hoped to be, but not a swing and a miss, ei­ther. That still could move the Bears for­ward in­stead of back­ward in 2020.

2

Quinn should be No. 1 on that list — he’s a proven pass rusher in a de­fense with a stout front seven, in­clud­ing Khalil Mack on the other side. He has not par­tic­i­pated in team drills so far in camp.

The slow start might not be a hin­drance — Mack and Ro­quan Smith made im­me­di­ate im­pacts with lit­tle or no prepa­ra­tion in 2018. But Quinn’s “ramp up” seems more like a red flag for a player in a new po­si­tion in a new de­fense and with a short lead time to the sea­son opener.

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Of the Bears’ five prac­tices in pads, the play­ers have been on the far field be­hind the Wal­ter Pay­ton Cen­ter three times, so re­porters have been a good 90-100 yards away from most of the ac­tion — with play­ers on the far-field side­line ob­scur­ing their view.

That makes it more dif­fi­cult to see even ba­sic things — like whether a pass was com­pleted and who caught it or did not — let alone the lit­tle things. So prac­tice re­views aren’t nearly as ex­act as they’ve been at Bour­bon­nais.

So take it for what it’s worth that of the po­si­tion bat­tles in Bears’ camp, Ifedi seems to have most so­lid­i­fied his spot. Rashaad Coward, who started nine games last sea­son in place of Kyle Long, is clearly be­hind Ifedi, and that’s one po­si­tion that you most want to find one guy as soon as pos­si­ble and go with him.

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Caveat Emp­tor Dept.: Mitch Tru­bisky’s deep ball to tight end Jes­per Horsted on a seam route has been the high­light play of train­ing camp.

"I just thought it was a hell of a throw,” Nagy said. “Great vi­sion, great an­tic­i­pa­tion, and you give a guy a chance to catch the ball and run. That's all you can ask for.”

That said, the seam route to the tight end has been ar­guably the big­gest false pos­i­tive of Bears train­ing camp over the years. It al­ways looks so im­pres­sive in camp but rarely is du­pli­cated in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

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That said, rookie tight end Cole Kmet is the one train­ing-camp good-news story you shouldn’t be afraid to fall for. The kid looks like he be­longs. And while he might not be pro­lific as a rookie, the in­di­ca­tions that he will con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly ap­pear more real than most Au­gust nar­ra­tives.

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Player to Watch: Third-year wide re­ceiver Javon Wims, a sev­enth-round pick in 2018, fi­nally is pick­ing up the finer points of his po­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­ceivers coach Mike Fur­rey.

“He’s 6-4, 220 — and a lot of those guys feel like they can just start run­ning around peo­ple and out-man them, and it just doesn’t work like that,” Fur­rey said.

In par­tic­u­lar, Fur­rey said Wims is bet­ter at stay­ing low through the route in­stead of stand­ing up and giv­ing away the route. And he’s also us­ing his size to beat press cov­er­age in­stead of “be­ing too cute at the line.”

“I’m ex­cited about Javon,’’ Fur­rey said. ‘‘I think Javon has taken some of the de­fi­cien­cies in his game that he’s been a lit­tle bit stub­born about and deny­ing . . . and he’s re­ally been open to coach­ing,. He looks like a dif­fer­ent player. He looks faster, quicker, strong in and out of his tran­si­tions.”

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Af­ter the most un­usual off­sea­son in re­cent mem­ory — re­mote off­sea­son pro­grams, ab­bre­vi­ated train­ing camps and no pre­sea­son games — this could be a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing Week 1 in the NFL.

It just seems like there’s a greater ad­van­tage to be had in pre­pared­ness this sea­son — es­pe­cially phys­i­cally. Last year, there were three Week 1 games de­cided by more than two touch­downs. The open­ing-week dis­par­ity could be greater this time. And the in­jury list could be longer.

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The Bears won’t have fans at Sol­dier Field at least in the early go­ing, but they will have a new field an­nouncer — Tim Sin­clair, who has been the PA an­nouncer for the Fire for the last six years and for Illi­nois football the last 10. Sin­clair re­places Jim Riebandt, who re­tired af­ter 38 sea­sons last year. He will do PA an­nounc­ing with or with­out fans in the stands, the Bears said.

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Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week Award: Long, in the run­ning for the best re­tire­ment in NFL his­tory within weeks of call­ing it quits in Jan­uary be­fore a sud­den Twit­ter hia­tus, will be a stu­dio an­a­lyst for CBS Sports Net­work’s Sun­day pregame show, “That Other Pregame Show.” He will be a pan­elist with Amy Trask, Adam Schein and for­mer Rams, Bills and Red­skins line­backer Lon­don Fletcher.

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Bear-ome­ter (7-6-1) — at Lions (L); vs. Giants (can­celed); at Fal­cons (can­celed); vs. Colts (W); vs. Buc­ca­neers (W); at Pan­thers (W); at Rams (L); vs. Saints (L); at Ti­tans (W); vs. Vik­ings (W); at Pack­ers (L); vs. Lions (W); vs. Tex­ans (L); at Vik­ings (L); vs. Jaguars (W); vs. Pack­ers (T).

Ger­main Ifedi

Jimmy Gra­ham

AP PHO­TOS

Ted Ginn

Robert Quinn

Rashaad Coward

Javon Wims

Cole Kmet

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