INDIANAPOLIS — While Brian Gutekunst insisted Wednesday that the Green Bay Packers haven’t made any decisions on the futures of Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb or Nick Perry, the Packers general manager was certain of this: Veteran tight end Jimmy Graham will return this season.
“I look forward to seeing what he can do for us this year,” Gutekunst said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine.
Graham, who signed a three-year, $30 million free agent deal to come to Green Bay last March, had 55 receptions for 636 yards (11.6-yard average) and two touchdowns last season. He had only one 100-yard game and was not the red zone field-tilter the Packers envisioned.
In a rare conversation with reporters late in the season, Graham admitted he was “disappointed” with his year — “My numbers suck,” he said — and said the losing and his unfamiliarity with the Packers’ offense were challenging for him.
“I’m just trying to do my job, do what I’m told,” Graham said at the time. “It’s just in this offense, the tight end does a lot of stuff. I’ve got a lot of responsibilities — just not running routes and out here catching the ball like a receiver. That’s just how it is.
“You know, I’ve always dominated everywhere I’ve went. Obviously, I haven’t done that yet here. So, it would be nice to get an opportunity to do it. Come back and maybe just be kind of more comfortable here. But I’m going to give it my all no matter what’s asked of me anywhere I go, or if I stay here.”
Gutekunst said he felt Graham’s nagging injuries — he played the second half of the season with a broken thumb and would take midweek practices off to protect his knee from wear and tear — were a factor. It also didn’t help that quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ knee injury in the season opener kept him from practicing much during the first half of the season, when he and Graham needed to build chemistry.
“Hopefully, he can be a little bit healthier going in through the year,” Gutekunst said. “Certainly, that’s always a part of production.”
Graham, 32, is due a $5 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year, which starts on March 13. The Packers must pay it, negotiate a restructured contract or release him by then. Graham, who received an $11 million signing bonus, only has a base salary of $3.45 million for 2019 but will count $12.6 million against the cap if he remains on the team.
The Packers could have saved $5.333 million in salary-cap space if they decided to cut him instead of paying that roster bonus, and if they designated him a post-June 1 cut, they could save even more by pushing the cost into the 2020 cap.
Instead, Gutekunst left little doubt that Graham will return. The question now becomes how he’ll fit into coach Matt LaFleur’s offensive system.
LaFleur said Wednesday that he does need his tight ends to block in his scheme, which is not Graham’s strong suit. No tight end in the league lined up in the slot — detached from the line of scrimmage — more than Graham did last year. Like ex-head coach Mike McCarthy, LaFleur said he wants a tight end who is “a huge matchup problem for a defense down the field.”
Asked if Graham is still that kind of player, LaFleur replied, “That’s a great question because you don’t know. Especially when you’re coming in from the outside, you don’t know exactly what he was going through physically and whatnot. Anytime you’re dealing with a guy who’s got a little bit of mileage on him, I think we have to be careful in how much we ask of him throughout the week.”
Meanwhile, Gutekunst said he hasn’t made any decisions on Matthews or Cobb, who are set to become unrestricted free agents, or Perry, who has a $4.8 million roster bonus due in March as part of the five-year, $60 million deal he signed before the 2017 season.
Since signing that deal, Perry has just 8½ sacks, including only 1½ during another injury-marred season in 2018. The Packers could cut Perry or bring him back on a restructured contract that would be incentivized to protect the team if his bad injury luck continues. Perry, in turn, could decide to turn down such overtures and seek a fresh start elsewhere.
“Nick’s struggled through some injuries,” Gutekunst said. “It’s been unfortunate. When he’s been out there, he’s been a good player for us. We’ll make those decisions as they come.”
With Cobb and Matthews, the Packers have exclusive negotiating rights until the league’s negotiating window opens on March 11. But Gutekunst indicated the team is still trying to gauge what their markets will be and at what number they’d be comfortable with bringing them back.
“To be quite frank, it’s really just about information gathering, to kind of see where their markets are going to be at. Obviously they’re free agents coming up here, and (we’re) seeing where that’s going to be,” Gutekunst said. “And does that fit what we’re trying to do as a football team? As that information comes in, me and Matt will sit down and make decisions on how we want to go forward. I think it would be unfair — I’ve always felt — it’s unfair to your football team to make those decisions before you have all the information, so that’s where we’re at.”
Cobb struggled with a hamstring injury for much of last season, finishing with 38 receptions for 383 yards and two touchdowns.
“Randall has been a great player for us. He’s one of the all-time Packers. We’re kind of still putting that puzzle together,” Gutekunst said when asked if Cobb is in the team’s plans. “Obviously we had draft meetings and free agency meetings. Now we’re here at the combine. As we get all the information together as we approach the next few weeks, we’ll kind of have a better idea for all that.”
Gutekunst’s answer was similar when asked about Matthews, who played in all 16 games last season but finished with just 3½ sacks. It marked the fourth straight year that Matthews finished with fewer than 10 sacks after putting up double-digit sacks in three of his first four NFL seasons. Matthews will turn 33 in May.
“Clay’s obviously done (a lot); he’ll be a Packers Hall of Famer,” Gutekunst said. “He’s been a great player for us for a long time. He’s still playing at a very, very high level, and we’ll kind of get to that a little bit the next two weeks.”