McCarthy was asked twice about Graham after Thursday’s practice.
“I think anytime a tight end can play inside and outside and can also line up on the backside of a 3-by-1 and be a featured player, I think that speaks volumes of how he’s used,” McCarthy said. “Deadly in the red zone, so definitely a big part of their offense.”
Asked a follow-up question, McCarthy simply said: “I think he’s a damn good football player.”
Graham, a first-round pick in 2010, is a two-time Pro Bowler. Last season, he led all tight ends with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards and a team-record and league-high 16 touchdowns. This season, even though he missed most of one game with a shoulder injury, had a bye week and was limited to 30 snaps in his uneventful comeback last week at Detroit, he ranks third among tight ends with 34 receptions.
“I don’t know if there’s any better than he is. He’s got it all,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “These guys, they’ve got a lot of different weapons and he obviously catches your attention because as a tight end he’s tied for their lead in receiving.”
Graham is a freak of nature. Not that it’s any different anywhere else around the league, but the Packers don’t have anyone with a prayer of matching up from a size/speed perspective. At 6-foot-6 1/4, Graham ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds and jumped vertically 38.5 inches at the 2010 Scouting Combine. For context, Carolina’s promising young receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, is 6-foot-5, ran in 4.61 and jumped 32.5 inches. Green Bay rookie tight end Richard Rodgers is 6-foot-4, ran in 4.87 and jumped 31.5 inches.
With that statistical and physical dominance as a backdrop, Graham — his uncertain health notwithstanding — likely is the focal point of Capers’ game plan. While the Packers haven’t allowed a touchdown to a tight end this season, they gave up big days to Chicago’s Martellus Bennett in Week 4 and Carolina’s Greg Olsen last week. Olsen caught eight passes (eight targets) for 105 yards, even with Benjamin being the only legit threat at wide receiver. The Saints have a lot more weapons than the Panthers, so limiting Graham can’t be Capers’ sole focus.
“You look how they’ve spread the ball around to those running backs, their wide receivers,” Capers said. “They’ve got a couple guys who really threaten you vertically. (Receiver Marques) Colston is like a wide receiver/tight end. He’s a big guy that goes over the middle and catches the ball; very courageous going over the middle and has made a lot of plays for them. They’ve got an awful lot of weapons. It’ll be a big challenge for us. Plus, the atmosphere, the pace that they go at, it’s something you try to prepare for. You don’t want them to get you on your heels.”
Green Bay’s inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Sam Barrington, and safeties, Morgan Burnett and HaHa Clinton-Dix, all stand 6-foot-1, so they’re giving away 5 inches. Hawk has the intelligence but not the speed. Barrington lacks experience. Burnett lacks the coverage skills. Clinton-Dix, this year’s impressive first-round pick, hasn’t been used much in man-to-man situations so is a bit of an unknown. Safety/slot defender Micah Hyde is 5-foot-11, as are cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Tramon Williams. They will all get their shot.
“It’ll be a hell of a challenge,” Barrington said. “He’s a great player. He definitely does a great job creating matchups. Just time to go – simple as that. I won’t make it more than that. I’m a player. He’s a player. Simple as that.”
Even though Graham is only in his fifth season in the league, he and quarterback Drew Brees have hooked up for 44 touchdowns. That’s the fourth-most quarterback-to-tight end scoring plays in NFL history.
“He’s a big target. He can run. He does a lot of things extremely well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said during his conference call. “He handles man-to-man coverage. He a lot of times gets different matchups. His throwing radius and where you can throw the ball to him is outstanding. I know that there’s a ton of confidence that Drew has in regards to where he’ll be and how he’ll run routes. They spend a lot of time together, not only during the workweek but post-practice on specific things that they want to get accomplished in the game.”
Here is how Green Bay has faired against tight ends this season. The Packers have faced four of the top 20 tight ends in receptions. Olsen and Chicago’s Martellus Bennett lead the league with 41 receptions; Bennett provided all of the production in our chart. Jets rookie Jace Amaro is tied for ninth with 27 receptions but caught only one pass for 6 yards in Week 2. Miami’s Charles Clay, who ranks 18th with 21 receptions, caught three passes for 35 yards.
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