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Packers TE Jimmy Graham is (probably) still awesome

NFL: Green Bay Packers-OTA USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Stats actually don’t lie, contrary to the popular saying. Stats tell you exactly what they tell you, no more, no less. No, the problem with statistics is invariably people, and a person’s need for simple, easy to understand bite-size stories.

Statistics say that new Packer tight end Jimmy Graham was extremely inefficient last season as he was 28th in DVOA among tight ends, and 103rd among all pass-catchers in WROPS, just below Jordy Nelson.

But those stats don’t tell you that Graham was terrible, just that he lacked production, and there are a lot of reasons a player may not produce. One of those reasons can be that he’s terrible, but football is complicated, and in the passing game there are so many interlocking parts that a pass-catchers production is subject to any number of changes elsewhere.

One of my favorite football analysts is Ben Baldwin of The Athletic’s Seattle division. Ben is one of the smartest analysts you will find, and the other day he tweeted this interesting fact:

The Seattle line has been an issue for awhile, and I’m sure most Packer fans fondly remember the success of the Packer pass rush against the Seahawks last season. The Seattle offensive line wasn’t just bad, it was historically terrible, and Russell Wilson was under constant pressure for the entire season. This issue had a disproportionate impact on Graham. While Jimmy Graham is a receiving specialist, he was called on to chip and block quite a bit, he served as an emergency bailout option frequently, and because Wilson just didn’t have much time, deep balls to Graham didn’t materialize as frequently.

When the line is simply bad, Wilson can run around and create time for deep balls, but last season the team had to resort to extra blockers with some regularity.

Here, the Seahawks attempt to spring Graham deep with play-action, but in doing so they max-protect, sending only two receivers into the pattern, and both on the same side to boot. The 49ers react quickly and swarm the double wideouts. It’s the kind of play you run when you completely lack confidence in your line, and if the defense is prepared, it’s hopeless.

Graham also had far too many plays like this -1 yard effort on a misdirection play that is completely blown up by the Rams. On this play, the line surges left at the snap, and they try to leak a few receivers out against the grain as Wilson rolls right after a play fake.

The Rams not only aren’t fooled, they get a guy right in Wilson’s grill, forcing a hopeless dump-off to Graham behind the line of scrimmage.

Graham has always been a tough matchup based on his size, speed, and use of his body on contested catches, and while he has undoubtedly lost a step, he’s still more than fast enough to do damage on mid-level and deep passes. His play in the red zone, and 10 touchdowns, showed that he can still body a defender with the best of them. The difference between 2016 Graham, who averaged a career high 14.2 yards per reception, and 2017 Graham, who averaged 9.1, really wasn’t much, and getting something like his career average of 12.2 yards per reception is a reasonable expectation going into this season.

Russell Wilson also had a career worst year last season in terms of production, but anyone who actually watched him play would likely conclude that he is both a wizard, and lucky to be alive. The line hurt Wilson, and the line hurt Graham. Anyone who blames either Wilson or Graham for the Seahawks’ offensive issues is taking the easy way out. Graham is 32 years old, and not what he was in his twenties, but he’s much more dangerous than his stats let on.

What about Jordy Nelson?

I mentioned earlier that Graham’s 2017 production was actually slightly worse than Nelson’s by WROPS, and the easy conclusion to make with Nelson would be that he simply suffered without Aaron Rodgers. The difference between Nelson and Graham is that with Graham, tape shows a player who can still get open, and still bring in balls if the throws are there. Nelson was productive with Rodgers, but that production was almost entirely based chemistry with Rodgers. The fact of the matter is that Nelson was almost always covered, and covered well, even on his big plays. While there is nothing wrong with working hard to have chemistry with the quarterback, that was essentially all that Nelson had.

The short version is that, on tape, Graham was bad because of his line. And on tape, Nelson was only good because of his quarterback.