Packers GM expects Graham back after poor '18

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmy Graham thought his production in his first season with the Green Bay Packers, in his own words, sucked.

The tight end will get the chance to change that.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst gave every indication Wednesday that Graham will return for a second season in Green Bay. The 32-year-old veteran is owed a $5 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year, which begins March 13.

The Packers will either pay that or, if Graham is amenable, restructure his contract before that date because they believe he can produce even more than he did last season, when he caught 55 passes for 636 yards with two touchdowns.

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

Near the end of last season, Graham said "my numbers suck" when asked about his production. He added that his role in the offense required him to do more than just catch passes.

"It's just in this offense, the tight end does a lot of stuff," Graham said at the time. "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. I'm just trying to do my job and do what I'm told."

While new coach Matt LaFleur said tight ends still must block in his offense, he wants players at that position who can stretch the field. As Tennessee's offensive coordinator, LaFleur thought he had one in 2018 until Delanie Walker suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1.

LaFleur said he would like a tight end who's a "big, long, linear guy ... that's a huge matchup problem for a defense down the field."

He was unsure when asked if Graham is still that guy.

"That's a great question because you don't know," LaFleur said. "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."

The Packers signed Graham to a three-year, $30 million deal in free agency last March, but they could have gotten out of it after one year and $13 million and saved $5.333 million in salary-cap space if they cut him before next month's roster bonus is due. That savings would jump to $9 million if they designated him a post-June 1 cut.

Neither sounds like it's happening.

Graham played all 16 games last season, even though he was limited in practice by a nagging knee injury and played part of the season with a splint on his broken left thumb. He had just one 100-yard game and no games with multiple touchdowns after scoring 10 times the previous season with the Seahawks.

"Hopefully, he can be a little bit healthier going in through the year," Gutekunst said later Wednesday in a side session with reporters. "Certainly, that's always a part of production."

Gutekunst was less committal about high-priced and oft-injured outside linebacker Nick Perry, who's owed a $4.8 million roster bonus next month. Perry had just 1.5 sacks last season in nine games. The 2012 first-round pick, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal in 2017, could be cut before then.

This is the first offseason that the Packers could cut Perry and get some cap savings.

"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."

It was much the same when he was asked about pending free agents Randall Cobb and Clay Matthews.

"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. "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."

Matthews played all 16 games, but he recorded just 3.5 sacks and hasn't had a double-digit sack season since 2014.

"Same thing. Clay's obviously done [enough]; he'll be a Packer 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."

Packers negotiator Russ Ball was expected to meet with the agents for most, if not all, of the team's pending free agents this week at the combine.

"To be quite frank, it's really just about information-gathering," Gutekunst said. "To kind of see where their markets are going to be at. Obviously they're free agents coming up here, seeing where that's going to be, 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 how we want to go forward. I've always felt that it's unfair to your football team to make those decisions before you have all the information, so that's where we're at."