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The Jimmy Graham mistake 2.0: TE a rare miss for Packers GM

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Stephen A. predicts Rodgers, Packers will win NFC North (0:52)

Stephen A. Smith sees Aaron Rodgers carrying the Packers to an NFC North championship this season. (0:52)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jimmy Graham versus Zach Brown. Six-foot-7 against 6-foot-1. It was a classic mismatch.

Except here’s the thing Graham forgot: Two hands are better than one.

For reasons only Graham knows, the Green Bay Packers tight end extended only his right hand and failed to corral what should have been a 1-yard touchdown that could have tied Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles midway through the fourth quarter.

Excuse Graham for not making a similar catch on first down three plays earlier. That ball could have been thrown higher, and Eagles safety Rodney McLeod put up a good fight on the fade to Graham.

But the fourth-down play, one on which Aaron Rodgers peeled off to the right and Graham got Brown, the Eagles' linebacker, turned around, was exactly what the Packers brought Graham in for when they signed him in 2018.

“He’s well aware that he should have gone up with two [hands] on the last one," Packers tight ends coach Justin Outten said.

The longer Graham plays in Green Bay -- it’s going on 21 games heading into Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys -- the more it seems that’s the way his tenure with the Packers will be marked. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst made Graham one of his first major moves. He signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal on the day in March 2018 when he released receiver Jordy Nelson.

Gutekunst hasn’t made many mistakes during his early run as GM. His two drafts look fruitful, especially at the top, with 2018 first-round pick Jaire Alexander and the second of his two 2019 first-rounders, Darnell Savage. His four high-priced free-agent signings this offseason -- Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Billy Turner -- have produced already.

But it looks like Graham will go down as one of the two biggest mistakes of Gutekunst's first two seasons.

The second mistake? Bringing Graham back for a second season.

Gutekunst could have gotten out of the contract after one year and $13 million, had he released Graham before he had to pay a $5 million roster bonus in March. But Gutekunst, perhaps convinced that Graham would flourish in new coach Matt LaFleur’s offense in ways he did not under Mike McCarthy last season, made it clear at the combine in February that Graham remained in the 2019 plan.

"I look forward to seeing what he can do for us this year," Gutekunst said at the time.

The offseason and training camp showed only bits of evidence to suggest that things would be different. Still, coaches and teammates alike thought Graham was poised to play more like he did in 2017 -- when he caught 10 touchdowns during his final season in Seattle -- than last season, when he caught just two and admitted late in the season that “my numbers suck.”

Graham will turn 33 next month, and while he has already equaled his touchdown total from last season -- his second of the season was a 14-yarder in the third quarter of Thursday’s game against the Eagles -- he hasn’t had the kind of impact performance the Packers thought they’d get from him on at least a semiregular basis.

“He’s declined,” one NFL scout this week. “He’s declined a lot.”

When asked about the fourth-down play, another scout said Graham would’ve made that play two years ago.

“No doubt,” the scout said. “Now it’s probably a 50-50 [play] at best.”

Yet the Packers still plan to try to get Graham involved.

LaFleur has regularly mentioned Graham as one of the team’s top playmakers, along with Davante Adams. With Adams’ status in doubt for Sunday’s game at Dallas because of a toe injury, LaFleur might have no choice but to try to get Graham more involved.

Meanwhile, Rodgers seemingly praises Graham at every turn.

Last week, he said: “Jimmy’s the best. He’s a great teammate. He’s one of my best friends, not just as a teammate. I love our conversations, getting to talk to him. He is a very positive person. He’s a realist. His focus and preparation has been second to none, as usual.”

After Thursday’s game, Rodgers said: “The trust is high with Jimmy. I’ve got a lot of faith in him. He made a great adjustment on the touchdown in the first half, the two-minute drive. Not something we talked about -- he just wheeled it up. I saw him, and he made a nice catch on the ball. I know he probably expects to make one of those two plays there [from the 1-yard line], but I have a ton of confidence in Jimmy.”

Games in Dallas are also a reminder of why the Packers turned to Graham in the first place. It was in Dallas that tight end Jared Cook made that toe-tapping, 35-yard, sideline catch to set up the winning field goal in the Packers’ divisional playoff win following the 2016 season. Botched negotiations on both sides then led the Packers to turn to Martellus Bennett, whose disastrous tenure led the Packers to Graham.

Graham has not discussed whether he was surprised the Packers brought him back for a second season. Whatever he thinks of his role and performance this season has come via others.

“He’s a true competitor, and a true competitor obviously wants to have a big part in helping the team win,” Outten said. “He was a little frustrated going into this game. It was our job to get him the ball. In previous weeks, when you have him as the first look and first read, sometimes the defense has other plans.

"Certain situations the last couple weeks against good defenses, they took away some of those situations. It was good to see him get rolling [against the Eagles].”