GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It sounds like Aaron Rodgers made quite the impression on Jimmy Graham -- not in the free-agent recruiting process but rather when they met for the first time years ago at the Pro Bowl.
It was on a bus, of all places, and involved the quarterback's signature celebration move.
“He basically got into the bus and gave me ‘The Belt’ and then sat down,” Graham recalled. “So that was my first interaction with him. We’ve been pretty good friends ever since. He’s got a great sense of humor, and obviously I’m excited to learn from him. I’m excited to be in the huddle with him and to really start this learning process.”
Rodgers couldn’t actually get ahold of Graham this offseason, when the Green Bay Packers courted him in free agency and signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal, but it worked out well enough for the veteran tight end to finally team up with Rodgers.
“Jimmy and I started a relationship at the Pro Bowl and have been friends since I got to meet him over in Hawaii,” Rodgers said Tuesday when the Packers began their offseason workouts. “Just kind of hit it off personality-wise, and we’ve kept in touch a little bit over the years. We joked at the time about wanting to play together at some point, so I was pretty excited with the signing and getting to talk to him. He’s just a very talented guy, very smart guy. And I think he’s going to be a great addition to our locker room.”
The Packers agreed to terms with Graham on the same day they released Rodgers’ favorite target, receiver Jordy Nelson. Rodgers called that day “bittersweet.” And while Graham and Nelson play different positions and the moves probably would have been made independent of each other, it continues to be viewed as a swap of a 32-year-old receiver for a 31-year-old tight end.
In his three seasons with the Seahawks, Graham never matched the production he had with the Saints. Perhaps that could be attributed to the differing philosophies of each team (the Saints as the wide-open passing offense compared to the defensive-minded, run-oriented Seahawks) and the quarterbacks (Drew Brees in New Orleans, Russell Wilson in Seattle).
Graham ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee late in 2015, his first season with the Seahawks. He came back the next season with 65 catches for 923 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 10 touchdown passes last season, but his yardage total (520) was the lowest since his rookie year (2010). Both of his 1,000-yard seasons (2011 and 2013) came in New Orleans, where he had four different seasons with double-digit touchdowns.
The Packers clearly believe Graham can replicate his production with the Saints and Brees.
“I’m still 6-[foot]-7 and can still run a 4.5 [40-yard dash], so I think so,” Graham said. “Hopefully I can do that here. When my number is called, I’m going to be ready, I can tell you that.”
It’s the same kind of thing the Packers heard from Martellus Bennett last offseason and Jared Cook the offseason before that. Cook excelled -- when healthy -- while Bennett bombed out and lasted just seven games.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s offense often has been most effective when he has an athletic, pass-catching tight end at his disposal. That, along with the prospect of playing with Rodgers, appealed to Graham.
“There was a lot of teams out there who were really pulling on me, and I turned down quite a significant amount of money to come here because I believe in not only Mike but, I mean, 12’s hungry,” Graham said, referring to Rodgers’ jersey number. “I know how he is and I know how competitive he is, and I want to ride that wave and try to help him as best I can.
“For me, it’s about winning a ring. Simple as that. I know this team, I know Aaron’s hungry, I know the coaching staff’s hungry, this franchise is hungry to win one. And that was the defining factor for me.”