Fantasy Football: Can Jimmy Graham Return to Form in Green Bay?

Jimmy Graham is now catching passes from the greatest touchdown thrower in the NFL. But can Aaron Rodgers revive the tight end's career?

Jimmy Graham has set such a high bar for himself that his recent play has proven somewhat disappointing for fantasy owners. Despite finishing the past two seasons as the TE4 and TE7 in PPR scoring, Graham's recent production is dwarfed by his epic four-year stretch from 2011-2014.

After beginning his career with the New Orleans Saints, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2015 and suffered a season-ending patella ligament tear that same year.

But let's look at Jimmy Graham's career through a wider lens:

Year PPR Points Position Rank
96.9 27
2011 296.0 2
2012 237.2 1
2013 303.5 1
2014 233.9 2
2015 120.5 20
2016 193.3 4
2017 169.0 7

Following his years with Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, Graham now finds himself on the receiving end of the best touchdown thrower in the NFL, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Will that be enough to elevate Graham back to dominance at the tight end position?

Graham's resurgence will ultimately be decided by three major factors.

Following his injury in 2015, has Graham been an elite performer? In his new home, will he demand enough looks? Will Rodgers' high-end play be enough to elevate Graham's efficiency?

Is Graham Still Elite?

Unfortunately, Jimmy Graham's big dip in production happened in the same season where he moved to Seattle and suffered his serious knee injury. This makes it difficult to determine which factor was most closely responsible for the declining production.

Was he a poor fit in Seattle? Was Wilson a downgrade from Brees? Was Graham affected by the injury the entire time? It's probably some combination of the three.

The Saints offense averaged 690 pass plays per year from 2011 to 2014 (during Graham's key years) while the Seahawks averaged 581 in Graham's three years in Seattle, from 2015 to 2017. Not only did he experience a substantially less voluminous passing attack, Graham also saw his percentage of targets decrease in Seattle.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Graham was a victim of circumstance in Seattle, but did he maintain his efficiency on his limited opportunities in this slower-paced offense?

Graham's Target Success Rate -- that is, the number of positive plays produced per target according to our Net Expected Points (or NEP, which you can read more about in our glossary) metric -- dipped in Seattle, suggesting that even on a per-target basis, Graham was not as effective in Seattle as he was in New Orleans.

Will Rodgers Feed Graham?

Aaron Rodgers doesn't have a strong history of feeding his primary tight end -- a tight end has not exceeded a 15 percent target market share in Green Bay since Jermichael Finley did so in 2011. Meanwhile, Graham has demanded at least a 15% target market share in six of the previous seven seasons. By comparison, over the past five years, the leading tight end on each team in the NFL has averaged 12.7% of the team's targets.

Although Graham has a reputation as a dominant player, his Reception NEP per target suggests that Finley's best seasons with Rodgers were as good or better than Graham's most dominant seasons. So, Finley's strong 2009 and 2011 campaigns serve as a marker for Graham's potential upside in a Green Bay uniform.

Though Rodgers' historical tendencies don't suggest he loves throwing to the tight end, 2018 offers a significant number of available targets and additional red zone opportunities with the departure of Jordy Nelson. Graham figures to slide and take on a large part of Nelson's past workload. Plus, the Packers have made Graham the highest paid tight end in the NFL, suggesting they have plans to lean on him, unlike their usage of position in recent years.

Coupled with the fact that the Packers have averaged 610 pass plays per year -- 29 more than in Graham's Seattle year -- over the past five, the once dominant tight end should see a bump in targets and a great opportunity to produce fantasy numbers.

Can Rodgers Elevate Graham's Efficiency?

Aaron Rodgers is the best touchdown thrower in the NFL. Since the 2000 season, he owns 5 of the 26 best seasons by passing touchdown rate.

Naturally, he also crushes league average in Passing NEP per drop back.

Season Rodgers Pass NEP/Pass Wilson Pass NEP/Pass League Avg Pass NEP/Pass
2008 0.16 --- 0.04
2009 0.21 --- 0.04
2010 0.22 --- 0.05
2011 0.43 --- 0.05
2012 0.22 0.20 0.06
2013 0.32 0.17 0.05
2014 0.34 0.10 0.08
2015 0.06 0.30 0.11
2016 0.26 0.14 0.12
2017 0.13 0.12 0.06

A target from Aaron Rodgers is worth more than a target from nearly any other quarterback for a pass-catcher. However, keep in mind, Russell Wilson has been significantly better than the league average as well.

Still, the connection with Rodgers means positive plays, and that will likely feed more into Graham's touchdown upside than his yardage total or target volume.


Jimmy Graham will likely exceed the 15% target share threshold that Rodgers has infrequently given to his tight end of choice. He will also benefit from a Packers offense that favors the pass much more than his previous team in Seattle.

Target opportunity projects to be an improvement over Graham's previous three seasons. Additionally, Rodgers does provide a boost to Graham's ceiling, particularly in the touchdown department. However, Graham's downward trending success rate is concerning.

Overall, Graham should see a bounce-back year in 2018. But he is absent a realistic path to posting the raw numbers he saw in New Orleans -- the volume just isn't there.

Based on the numbers, he's a good bet to beat last year's TE7 finish, but he doesn't carry the ceiling necessary to return to the top tight end conversation.