Jimmy Graham settles into mentor roleMark Potashon November 18, 2021 at 10:03 pm

Bears tight end Jimmy Graham could not make this catch against Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton last week, but made a 28-yard catch in the fourth quarter that led to a touchdown in the Bears’ 29-27 loss on Nov. 8 at Heinz Field | Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The four-time Pro Bowl tight end knows he can provide more than the two receptions for 39 yards, but still takes pride in helping Cole Kmet grow. “It takes a big humbling pill to humble yourself and realize where you are in your career and where you can be useful.”

Jimmy Graham — remember him?

The four-time Pro Bowl tight end was signed by the Bears last year to accelerate the development of Matt Nagy’s offense. And even when that evolved into a role as a mentor for Cole Kmet in his second season, Graham still figured to play a key role, if only in the red zone.

But he’s been a non-factor for most of the season. In fact, his 28-yard reception against the Steelers on Nov. 8 — ballyhooed as “probably a top-three throw in the NFL this season” by coach Matt Nagy — was his first catch since Week 1 against the Rams.

In seven games — he missed Weeks 7-8 against the Buccaneers and 49ers while on the reserve/COVID-19 list — Graham has two receptions for 39 yards on just six targets. He’s playing 18 snaps per game — not much for a player whose $5.34 million cap hit ranks eighth on the roster.

“Obviously, we’re all very competitive human beings,” he said. “For me, it takes a big humbling pill to humble yourself and realize where you are in your career and where you can be useful.”

Graham accepted the mentor role with grace. The not-playing role has been a little tougher, but he’s handled that well, too. But it’s a long road to get there for a player like Graham, who at his peak was an athletic freak who was a dominant offensive weapon.

And even today at 34 (he turns 35 next Wednesday) still has enough left to be productive in a good NFL offense. Graham caught eight touchdowns just last season with the Bears. He had 10 touchdowns with the Seahawks in 2017. He was the best tight end in football with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013 with the Saints.

“Yeah, [it’s] a little different,” Graham said. “Missing games — I think I’d missed seven games in my career before [this year]. So that was terrible, going through that. I hadn’t really sat and watched my team play since I blew out my knee in Seattle [in 2015], so that was tough. But [it] really gave you perspective.

“I know I’ve got to be ready when my number’s called. But I know I also have a leadership role with these young guys and with my boy Cole and getting him right and seeing his growth this season is awesome. I celebrate every guy’s success on this team because I was there and had so many helping hands to get me where I am today … Sean [Payton], Drew [Brees], David Thomas, Jeremy Shockey, the list goes on … Marques Colton.

“I had these guys prepping me when I was a young kid who knew nothing about the game, knew nothing about life. That’s my role right now and I take that on. I didn’t think I’d be the old guy ever in the locker room, but here I am.”

What makes the transition sweet for Graham is almost an irony. A player who has been blessed with freakish athletic ability also learned the nuances of his position and the game. That’s why he’s still all-in on a 3-6 team where he plays 18 snaps a game.

“For me, it’s the game itself — I’ve got a great mental grasp on it. It makes it more entertaining when I am helping other guys out. When you’re able to put this knowledge — route running and what I know about defenses — and help out guys, it makes it fun. It makes every week fun, especially when you’ve got young guys who want to listen. That’s what’s cool. We’ve got guys that are hungry to learn. It makes every day interesting.”

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