GRAHAM IN LAND OF THE FREES
Veteran TE has been impressive, but it’s way too early
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).