Jimmy Graham lived up to his billing in 2020, but Bears could still prioritize cap savings

Graham led the Bears with eight touchdowns in 2020. His release would clear $7 million.
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By 670 The Score

(670 The Score) The Bears' first impression of tight end Jimmy Graham inspired hope that they got the signing right. They saw a veteran catching touchdowns in training camp and throwing the football in the air to celebrate, looking like he had something to prove.

Though the addition of Graham was scrutinized in Chicago -- many couldn't look past his recent drop in production -- he lived up to his billing in 2020 after the Bears added him on a two-year, $16-million deal last March. The 34-year-old Graham not only brought the swagger to the Bears that they saw in August, but he was also a highly productive red-zone threat. A five-time Pro Bowler, Graham led the team with eight receiving touchdowns and was fourth among all tight ends in the NFL.

"We knew we weren't getting the 27-year-old Jimmy Graham from the Saints," coach Matt Nagy said. "We understood that. But we also did our evaluation of who he was and the opportunities that he had while he was in Green Bay and what he’s looking for. So, there was a fit there. But his production on the field (was) really what we thought."

Graham was also viewed as a key influence in the Bears' locker room, serving as a mentor to rookie tight end Cole Kmet and earning the respect of his teammates. He was voted by teammates as the Bears' nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year, a prestigious honor that showcased how the team felt about him.

Graham's relative success came because the Bears committed to using him in a clear role that he was well-suited for rather than forcing him into their offense like the Packers did in 2018 and 2019. Graham had 50 receptions for 456 yards and those eight scores, with all but one coming inside the red zone.

Though Graham had half of his touchdowns in the final eight games, his role decreased while Kmet, a second-round pick, was relied upon more at tight end as the season progressed. Graham played 80% of the Bears' offensive snaps in their season opener on Sept. 13 compared to 40% in their regular-season finale on Jan. 3. While Nagy spoke of Graham and Kmet as a tandem, it wasn't a coincidence that Graham's role decreased while Kmet's increased.

Now the Bears face a key question regarding Graham's second season under contract -- is he worth the cost?

The Bears structured Graham's two-year deal so that they could get out of the second year if they so desired. His cap hit for 2021 would be $10 million, while his release would clear $7 million in cap space. The NFL's salary cap for this next year isn't set, but the Bears are projected to be below league average in cap space.

The Bears' decision on Graham will be based on whether he's more valuable returning in his role or if the cap savings would provide them more value. They also must be sure Kmet is ready to replace Graham as that red-zone threat.

Graham proved to be what the Bears hoped in 2020, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll return in 2021.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.