On Tuesday, the biggest single-day in Packers free agency since Charles Woodson came to town, Brian Gutekunst agreed to bring on former All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and release fellow former All-Pro Jordy Nelson.
It was a literal 1:1 trade as far as transactions are concerned, but given the strengths of each at this point in their careers, there’s a congruence that could suggest a 1:1 trade in this offense.
Nelson, losing athleticism and lateral quickness, benefits from his preternatural connection with Rodgers, feel in the red zone, and his body control near the sidelines. He’s Rodgers’ security blanket on third down and no one is a more potent threat around the goal line both within the flow of the offense and on second-reaction plays.
Over the last two years, Nelson leads the league in red zone touchdowns. Right behind him? Jimmy Graham (and Davante Adams).
The Packers haven’t had a mismatch player like this since prime Jermichael Finley and the few healthy games they got from Jared Cook. Remember the difference Cook made in the “Run the Table” stretch for the Packers. Graham is the most unstoppable goal line receiver not named Rob Gronkowski and the most effective end zone fade receiver in football playing with a quarterback who throws it better than anyone.
Graham was the most productive red zone threat in the league last season, leading the NFL in red zone touchdowns. In fact, Graham caught 15 of his 24 targets in the red area and produced 10 touchdowns.
The Packers trade elite red zone threat for elite red zone threat.
But Nelson put up huge numbers in 2016. Graham couldn’t possibly replicate that production as a tight end. How could he replicate a Pro Bowl receiver on the boundary?
Dig a little deeper.
In 2016, Jimmy Graham, a supposed down year for him, caught 65 balls for 923 yards, a 14.2 average. Nelson, in a resurgent year, caught 97 passes for 1257 yards, but averaged just 13 yards a catch. He simply isn’t the downfield threat he was in his prime. In fact, his per-catch average has fallen every season over the last three from 15.5 to 13 to 9.1 last season.
You know else had a 9.1 per-catch average last season? That’s right: Graham.
Brett Hundley certainly contributed to Nelson’s precipitous fall in 2017, but at this point in his career, Nelson clearly demonstrated limitations. His best spot in this offense since his ACL tear has been the slot, a place where Graham also thrives.
A slight tweak to the 2017 offense could complete the replication of Graham in Nelson’s role.
With Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, the Packers went to more two tight end sets (12 personnel) to try and be more multiple. They could go empty and throw it or heavy and run it. Unfortunately, Bennett’s injury, inconsistency, and ultimate forcible exit ruined these plans, to say nothing of the offense’s bed wetting once Rodgers got hurt.
But the Rodgers injury paved the way for the nascent arrival of a pair of rookie running backs. Their solidification of the run game along with the versatility of Ty Montgomery, could make Nelson’s exit and Graham’s entrance into this offense not only seamless, but even more dangerous for defenses.
Here is the Packers in a traditional 11 personnel look with three receivers, the tight end and the running back offset in the backfield.
No one runs this look more than Green Bay.
The Packers could, if they so chose, run this same look out of 12 personnel and split Graham out wide in Nelson’s place as the X or the Z in this formation. Frankly, he could be in the slot as well, though that would require Cobb to play outside where Mike McCarthy traditional avoids slotting him.
One slight adjustment could take this same formation and make it unstoppable for the Packers even with Graham’s limitation as a blocker.
Run it out of 21 personnel with Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones.
Here’s another variation of 11 personnel from last season that could be transformed with Graham and a 21 grouping.
Leave the bottom of the formation the same with Adams to boundary and Cobb in the slot.
At the top of the formation, Graham is an interchangeable piece, able to play in the slot or the boundary where Bennett slides in here. It’s a safety on your tight end, a built in mismatch for the Packers. We know Graham is a matchup nightmare split out on the boundary in the red zone, but he’s not any easier to deal with on the rest of the field.
Instead of Nelson, use Montgomery as Graham’s pair and Jones in the backfield. The Falcons got to use sub-package personnel because Nelson plays receiver, but would defenses defend it the same if Nelson were replaced with Montgomery, a 225-pound receiver-turned-running back?
If defenses stayed in their base, Rodgers would see a safety on his tight end and a linebacker on his dynamic back split out wide. Good luck with that.
But opponents would only respect that formation’s personnel as a run threat if the Packers actually ran with it. It’s ready-made for a single-back run game which Green Bay uses regularly out of the gun.
Lately, McCarthy has dabbled with traditional 21 personnel with Rodgers in the pistol where they can run or pass. Most teams don’t have power run games out of spread formations.
But if we hop in the time machine, the Packers have already used this same formation with a skill group much more closely resembling the unit they’d have in 2018.
Here’s a look from McCarthy’s finest offensive performance to date against the Patriots in 2014. He utilized Cobb and Jarrett Boykin in backfield looks that caught New England off guard and gave the Packers favorable matchups.
This same look could be used with Graham in Nelson’s place to the boundary and Cobb in the slot (the reverse of what the Packers did here). Adams would be alone to the top with Jones and Montgomery each in the backfield. But McCarthy could just as easily swap Cobb and Montgomery to see if he could dare a defense to cover Ty with a linebacker or a safety in the slot rather than a corner.
Then there’s the bind a defense would find itself in if the Packers went spread out of this grouping and the defense came out even just in nickel personnel.
This is the look with two tight ends. Replace Kendricks with Aaron Jones and Nelson with Graham. Defend likely comes out in the same personnel but the Packers have twice as many built-in mismatches.
With Davante Adams already entrenched as the new No. 1 in this offense, and Jones flashing promise in the backfield, expanding Montgomery’s role into a more dual-threat position would allow the Packers to make use of non-traditional personnel and slide Graham right into Nelson’s spot in this offense, on the boundary and in the slot.