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Bears tight end Jimmy Graham vows he’s not washed up, believes he can ‘dominate’

At 33, Graham has shown signs of decline. But the Bears signed him to a two-year, $16 million contract, and he aims to prove he’s worth it.

Graham’s last game of more than 65 yards was October 2018.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Jimmy Graham knows what everyone was thinking when the Packers cut him after two middling seasons at tight end.

The consensus that he’s washed up and can’t run like he did in his prime is no surprise to him, and he’s probably aware that the Bears’ signing him to a pricey deal raised eyebrows.

But he’s adamant he can still be one of the best playmakers in the NFL.

“Up until last year, I’ve never really failed in that,” he said after finalizing his Bears contract Thursday. “It was a tough pill to swallow. It was the first time I lost my job . . . It’s lit a fire.

“This opportunity is everything for me. I take it extremely serious. . . . 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.”

He’ll have to beat the odds to prove it.

Graham was an All-Pro in 2013 during a six-year run in which he averaged 78 catches, 987 yards and nine touchdowns per season. In the three seasons since, he totaled 150 receptions, 1,603 yards and 15 touchdowns. Last season was his worst since his rookie year — 38 catches, 447 yards, three touchdowns — and he never topped 65 yards in a game.

His playing time also slid from 74% in 2018 to 58% last season. The Packers played him on 38% of the offensive snaps in their first playoff game and 43% in the second.

Graham believes he can turn that around. The knee trouble that bothered him is gone.

“This is the fastest I’ve been in the last four or five years,” he said. “That’s everything — my ability to still separate from people and run down seams. I know I still have that.”

The Bears are making a two-pronged gamble on Graham and Trey Burton at tight end — an abysmal position for them last season. As pedestrian as Graham’s numbers were in 2019, they still eclipsed all Bears tight ends combined.

Burton missed most of last season as he struggled to come back from sports hernia surgery, then underwent another operation this offseason. Graham’s production and playing time have been on the decline, so there’s no certainty in him as a backup plan for Burton.

The best case for the Bears, of course, is that a healthy Burton gets back to how he played in 2018 and Graham also bounces back. That combination could be a game-changer for coach Matt Nagy’s offense. Tight end is the most important non-quarterback position for Nagy, and Graham was enamored of what Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace pitched him regarding his role this season.

“This is the closest I’ve gotten to being in an offense like back when I was with New Orleans,” Graham said. “That was the biggest draw for me, was a coach and a system that use a tight end the way I know how to be used.”

Graham was also drawn by the chance to reunite with Pace, who was an executive with the Saints when they drafted him in the third round in 2010. Graham had played one season of college football at Miami after playing four seasons of basketball. He credited the Saints for having the guts to take him when others shied away because of his inexperience.

“A lot of people didn’t believe in me and didn’t think that I could do it,” he said. “Just that connection, and I know that [Pace] knows who I am and what I am and the ability that I still do have.”

Now, after signing Graham to a two-year, $16 million contract (the Bears have an affordable out after this season), Pace is again in the position of holding the minority opinion on him. If that bet pays off like it did a decade ago, it’ll be a serious windfall for the Bears.