2018 Fantasy Football Free Agency: Will Aaron Rodgers elevate Jimmy Graham?

Aaron Rodgers has never been a "tight end guy," but after the Packers dumped the receiver he connected with for the most touchdowns in his career, he just might learn to love pass catchers with big bodies and big hands.

Especially in the red zone.

Jordy Nelson is out and Jimmy Graham is in with the Packers, creating a different look for one of the league's most consistent passing offenses. Nelson was on the other end of 20 percent of Rodgers' career touchdowns – 70 total including the playoffs. Of those 70, 44 came in the red zone including 16 of their last 20 connections.

And that's exactly where Graham figures to pick up the slack. A red-zone beast his entire career, 55 of Graham's 69 scores came inside the 20, including each of his 10 touchdowns with the Seahawks in 2017.

This would be new territory for Rodgers, who has rarely committed to tight ends. Sure, in 2015 he hit Richard Rodgers for eight touchdowns (though that included a Hail Mary) and made good with Jermichael Finley for the same tally in 2011, but that's about it. In the last five years Rodgers has averaged six targets, four catches and 42 yards per game to his tight ends (plural, not just his best one) with 23 touchdowns, about one every three games.

If Graham were added to the Packers' mix without Nelson leaving, we'd be skeptical of his Fantasy value. But with Nelson out of the picture, a whole bunch of red zone and end zone targets are opening up in Green Bay. Rodgers has averaged over two passing touchdowns per game and Graham will be tough to double-cover along with Davante Adams, so there should be plenty of opportunities to score. 

No one would be surprised to see Graham come down with eight touchdowns in 2018. That alone qualifies him as a cinch top-12 Fantasy tight end. 

But that's only half of the equation – the best players at the position also amass yardage, something missing from Graham's game for a while. He has 72 yards or fewer in 24 straight games. Pair that with Rodgers' lack of history connecting with tight ends and there's reason to believe Graham is a touchdown-or-bust tight end with name recognition.

Rodgers is a safe bet to average 34 pass attempts per game since he's hit that total in the past three years, all in the absence of a reliable run game. With Nelson on the field the past two seasons, Rodgers looked for him 8.1 times per game and targeted tight ends 6.7 times per game. This figures to be the number of targets up for grabs for Graham and whoever else the Packers add to their starting lineup. Given this circumstance, one might envision Graham improving on the six targets he had per game last season with the Seahawks. Bumping him up to a projected 6.5 targets per game could be justified, and it would mean 104 on the season.

From here it's a matter of which Graham shows up in 2018. Before last season Graham averaged a 65.3 percent catch rate and 12.6 yards per catch. Then 2017 happened and he caught 59.4 percent of his targets for a measly 9.1 yards per grab. Seven drops definitely contributed to those numbers, particularly since his targets were down. An improved catch rate isn't hard to believe with Rodgers as his quarterback but the receiving average probably won't rise much. He's not as fast as he once was and his average depth of target will probably be around nine yards. Without being too aggressive, a 10.0 yard per catch average on a 61.5 percent catch rate is just.

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Jimmy Graham GB • TE •
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Early projection for Jimmy Graham: 64 catches, 640 yards, eight touchdowns. 

That would have given him a No. 6 finish among tight ends in all 2017 formats, which is right about where he should be ranked heading into 2018 drafts.

Here's the thing, though – a lot of Fantasy fans are going to see Graham in Green Bay and go ga-ga for him. Let them. By the time the draft passes and the rest of free agency shakes out, Graham's value will settle in closer to Round 7. Those who are hanging on to Graham's past will take him in Round 4 or 5. Their mistake, not yours.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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