Leading up to Bears training camp in late July, Shaw Local is counting down the top 25 most important Bears for the 2021 season.
What makes one player more important than another? That’s subjective, of course. But for our purposes it comes down to this: Are the Bears worse off if this player can’t play? Does this player have untapped potential or past greatness to live up to? Is his story going to be one fans follow closely this season?
Justin Fields might not be the best player on the Bears in 2021 (or maybe he will be), but he certainly is among the most important.
No. 14 Jimmy Graham
Position: Tight end
NFL experience: 12th season
Looking back: It was hard to know what to expect from veteran Jimmy Graham when he came to Chicago last year as a free agent. Looking solely at his stat lines, his previous two seasons in Green Bay were well below his most productive years half a decade earlier in New Orleans. But Graham emerged as a touchdown machine in 2020. He was a top target in the red zone, and although his 50 catches for 456 yards weren’t overly impressive numbers, his eight receiving touchdowns were a team high. Graham showed that, at 34 years old, he still can be a productive NFL tight end. He also was tasked with helping rookie tight end Cole Kmet get up to speed. The fruits of that labor should be more visible this season.
Looking forward: This spring, Bears tight ends coach Clancy Barone essentially laughed off the idea that Graham could’ve been among the players cut for salary cap space, pointing out that Graham led the team in receiving touchdowns. Graham now enters the final year of his two-year contract with the Bears. Although the team would like to see Kmet used more frequently, as he was toward the end of last season, Graham still is likely to be on the field quite often in the red zone. Last season showed that his size remains a major mismatch for defenses.
With only one season remaining on his contract, his future with the team beyond 2021 is unknown. But coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will make the most out of his presence while they can. Graham scored touchdowns in six regular-season games last season, and the Bears won five of those contests. If he finds the end zone, good things usually happen.