Going into Training Camp and the preseason, we had a number of roster battles we were eager to see — which, if any, of the undrafted wide receivers would win the team’s final WR spot? Who would win the return job between Kenjon Barner and Marcus Green? Who would win the left guard battle between Jamon Brown and James Carpenter? And a few more very intriguing ones I didn’t list.
I did not expect the tight end position to be one of intrigue this summer. Behind Austin Hooper, new free agent addition Luke Stocker, Logan Paulsen, who was solid in his role with the team in 2018, and 2017 fifth-round pick Eric Saubert had the position by the throat.
Going into camp, if there was going to be a battle at that position it would likely be between Saubert and Paulsen; and that’s if the team decided that they didn’t want to carry four tight ends again. Paulsen’s skill set is redundant to Stocker’s, and while Saubert came into the league with a high ceiling because of his physical tools and athleticism, he hadn’t progressed very much over the past two years.
Jaeden Graham entered camp as a long-shot to make the roster, because of the incumbents at his position. Hooper made the Pro Bowl last season, and Stocker had just signed a two-year contract which would incite a $1.5 million dead cap hit if cut — their spots on the roster were secure.
To be one of the 53 men come Week 1, Graham had to beat out both Saubert and Paulsen. At any moment the Falcons could choose to carry three TEs, so beating out just one of the incumbents wasn’t enough.
Another wrinkle in this challenge for Graham is the fact that Brian Hill was arguably the team’s most impressive player in Training Camp, meaning that the Falcons would likely carry at least four running backs this season. That decreased the possibility of there being four tight ends on the roster again in 2019, making things tougher for the Yale alum.
Make no mistake about it, Graham didn’t just make his way to Flowery Branch out of nowhere — he had a strong preseason with the team as an undrafted rookie free agent last year, and showcased himself enough to earn a spot on Atlanta’s Practice Squad.
The Yale graduate built on his good work last summer, and he showed out this year. The numbers won’t pop off the page, but Graham did everything asked of him in his role these past few weeks. He was a valuable safety net over the middle of the field for his QBs, an efficient blocker, showcased great hands, displayed good athleticism, and even proved versatile enough to play some fullback when Ricky Ortiz got hurt.
After a strong Training Camp, Graham went into the Hall of Fame game and caught two of his three targets for 22 yards, including a 16-yard reception. In Week 1 of preseason, he caught both of his targets for 14 yards. The bigger story in that game, however, was Saubert putting on a forgettable performance to the tune of one reception for 7 yards and a very ugly dropped pass which hit him in the chest.
The team had decided that they had seen enough forgettable performances out of Saubert since drafting him and cut their losses by trading him to the Patriots for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. The door to the roster opened ever so slightly for Graham, but he had to capitalized on the circumstances.
Week 2’s game against the New York Jets was where Graham really starting breaking down the door for that roster spot. He led both teams in receiving with 55 yards, hauling in four of his five targets in the process. He also put a special highlight on film, hurdling over a Jets defender in the midst of making a 30-yard reception:
TE Jaeden Graham presses the triangle button! pic.twitter.com/mjrOSWfobg— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) August 16, 2019
The Saubert trade combined with this performance is what really got people paying attention to Graham’s growing likelihood of finding himself on the 53-man roster come the regular season.
The Yale man got a look with the first team offense in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins, but left the game with an injury which could have jeopardized his chances of making the team if it was serious enough. For Graham to have put in all of that good work just to have the rug pulled out from under him due to injury would have been cruel.
Luckily, the ailment wasn’t serious enough to even sideline him for the final preseason game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he had another three receptions for 35 yards.
At this point, Graham had done himself every favor in trying to secure a spot on the team. He had youth and ceiling on his side over the 32-year-old Paulsen, but it was up to the coaching staff and front office to go with that youth over the steady production and specialized blocking Paulsen provided.
On Friday, the executives made that very decision, as it was announced that the Falcons were parting ways with Logan Paulsen. Graham had secured his spot on the 53-man roster as the third string tight end.
Every year, over 1,100 players fail to make an NFL roster after Training Camp and preseason. 320 of those players sign Practice Squad contracts to keep the dream alive, and a handful end up getting signed to a separate team’s 53-man roster.
A number of those other players will get a Training Camp invite the next year. However, they’ll be a year older, and competing against an influx of new undrafted free agents following their own NFL dreams. Their chances of making a roster will thus be diminished.
Thousands of football players have gone through the summer process only to fall short of their NFL dreams.
Jaeden Graham went through the process as an undrafted free agent, last year. He showcased himself enough to be one of the select 320 to wind up on a Practice Squad, giving himself a head start for this year over the 800 players who were cut and never found an NFL home afterward.
Graham then improved his game, went through the process again, and wrestled a roster spot away from the two favorites who were ahead of him on the July depth chart.
Jaeden Graham is one of the handful of August success stories we get every year, in the NFL — a young man successfully fighting for and achieving his dream of becoming a professional football player in the world’s best league — and it’s a breath of fresh air whenever it happens.