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Potential Falcons free agent profile: Jimmy Graham

Should the Falcons go after the former Saint who’s given them so many fits through the years?

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

This is Jimmy Graham we’re talking about! He’s eviscerated the Falcons enough in the past that he needs no introduction. For consistency’s sake, I’ll give him one anyway.

Graham is about to enter his ninth season in the NFL (I know, time flies). He is a five-time pro bowler and was an AP First-Team All-Pro selection in 2013. He has become a household name in the NFL and will be one of the most recognized free agents on the open market this spring.

Austin Hooper’s skill set is being called into question after an up and down sophomore campaign which saw him make some critical mistakes and drops within the Falcons’ offense. A number of sports media outlets have thrown around the suggestion that Atlanta sign Jimmy Graham this offseason. The idea would be to relegate Hooper to the bench and solidify the tight end position with a veteran pro bowler.

Let’s take a closer look at just how feasible this idea is for Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn.

The Case for Signing Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham is a physical mismatch in a sport predicated on physicality. Standing in at 6’7 and 265 pounds, he’s always been an absolute nightmare matchup for opposing defenders to have to guard.

Graham is still one of the most potent red zone weapons in the league. With a background in basketball, he is proficient in boxing out opposing defenders and positioning himself to make high-point catches with his 6’7 frame. Graham finished fifth in the NFL in touchdown catches with 10 this past season (five of which came inside the opponents’ three-yard line), and was catapulted into a pro bowl spot because of it. He would prove to be another deadly weapon for Matt Ryan to work with whenever the Falcons get inside the opponents’ red area.

For his career, Graham’s 69 touchdowns place him fourth all-time among Tight Ends (behind only Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski).

Graham’s durability throughout his career has also been impressive for someone playing the Tight End position. He has missed only seven games in his eight-year career. The old saying goes that the best ability is availability, and Jimmy Graham has consistently made himself available to play.

The Case against Signing Jimmy Graham

This is not the same Jimmy Graham whom we feared in New Orleans. The touchdowns were still there last season after he fully got acclimated to Seattle’s system, but his other receiving stats took a hit across the board in 2017. If you don’t count Graham’s rookie season, then his receiving yards (520), receptions per game (3.2), yards per game (32.5) and catch percentage (59.4%) were all career lows.

Austin Hooper, who was Atlanta’s primary TE last season, actually had better yardage numbers than Graham did this past year: 526 receiving yards, 10.7 yards per reception and 32.9 yards per game. There is only a minuscule difference in the yardage stats between these two players, however, when you realize that Hooper had 31 fewer targets than Graham, and a catch percentage of 75.4%, that difference gets a bit more stark.

Obviously, there is a significant difference between Graham’s 10 touchdowns and Hooper’s three touchdowns last season, but is that a difference worth sacrificing cap space for? Hooper counts as an $858,357 cap hit this season and a $943,357 cap hit next season. Conversely, Spotrac gives Jimmy Graham a valuation of 3 years/$20,194,848 for his next contract. That’s an average annual salary of $6,731,616, which would eat up a good bit of Atlanta’s available cap space (even if the Falcons end up back-loading the deal). Looking at the numbers, is it worth it to pay Graham 7.84 times more than what the Falcons are already paying Hooper for such similar production?

At the age of 31, Graham is also on the downside of his career. His athleticism has already started to decline (as we saw last season), and he will probably end up losing a step or two over the life of his next contract. His blocking ability is also sub-par.

The Verdict: Stick with Hooper, pass on Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham would be a big name signing, but spending $6-7 million per year (maybe even more) on him would be a mistake.

Graham’s length and technique will always keep him a threat to catch touchdowns in the red zone, but he doesn’t really do anything else that well. This would be an inordinate amount of money to pay for someone who plays a position that’s not an immediate need.

I get the Austin Hooper frustration from last season, and I was right there with many of you losing my mind when he dropped that pass against the Saints, and when he didn’t attack the ball on that final drive against the Dolphins. However, he was making those mistakes as a second-year player. At age 23, Hooper will only get better as he gets more experience under his belt, and he may even surpass Graham in the tight end hierarchy next season.

I’m not ready to give up on Austin Hooper just yet, and I’m for sure not prepared to pay an over-the-hill Jimmy Graham $20+ million to replace him.