Packers’ Rodgers, Graham could be red-zone nightmare for defenses

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers have a new threat in the red zone.

Six-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham sure does provide an intriguing target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers’ prized offseason free agent acquisition is showing the kind of athleticism in camp that the Packers haven’t had in a while at tight end. Receiver Jordy Nelson might be gone, but Graham throws a new wrinkle at opposing defenses.

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“He can do it all over the field … he’s an incredible athlete, he’s got a wide, wide catch radius and there’s a lot of things he can do,” Rodgers said.

Now the Packers just need to keep Rodgers upright and healthy for a full season again. A glimpse at what life is like without Rodgers showed just how precious these windows of opportunity can be with a two-time NFL MVP at quarterback.

A broken collarbone limited Rodgers to seven games last year, when the Packers failed to make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. What followed was an offseason of change that included a new general manager, new offensive and defensive coordinators, and the jettisoning of Nelson, a fan favorite.

The Packers are determined to prove 2017 was a fluke.

“We all should be better for the negative experiences that we’ve encountered in the past — whether it’s our record last year, Aaron’s healthy, all of those things,” coach Mike McCarthy said on the first day of preseason camp. “We know what our goal is, it’s stated, but we’re focused on being a world champion every day, and doing it the right way.”

Graham has already displayed chemistry with Rodgers in his first Packers camp. The tight end can be a matchup nightmare for defensive backs and linebackers across the middle of the field. That in turn could give receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb more room to operate on the outside, or vice versa.

As long as Rodgers is behind center, the Packers always have a chance to play deep in January.

GETTING DEFENSIVE: To get to a Super Bowl, they might need better production out of the defense. Enter new coordinator Mike Pettine, the former Browns head coach, who is tweaking the 3-4 scheme to give multiple looks and disguise quarterback pressures. Pettine has stressed accountability, while also keeping things simple for players.

“It’s just part of the fabric of the defense, and it goes back to the variety of bringing some unconventional players,” Pettine said. “It keeps it interesting for the guys. But we’ll see.”

ON THE CORNER: A cornerback position maligned by injuries over the past few seasons has been reinforced with promising rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, along with the return of veteran Tramon Williams. He along with Davon House bring stabilizing, veteran presences to the position. A return to health by last year’s top draft pick, cornerback Kevin King, might be the most important development for the group.

OFFENSIVE LINE: The Packers have the makings of a strong offensive line when all five starters are healthy. But various injuries have prevented all of them from being on the field at the same time during preseason games. Green Bay has depth, though no backup has emerged as a go-to guy if either left tackle David Bakhtiari or right tackle Bryan Bulaga gets hurt.

CATCHING UP: Adams is the new No. 1 receiver, while Cobb, in his eighth season, is the now the longest-tenured wideout. Geronimo Allison, who played well in spurts last year, is the clear-cut third receiver. Speedy third-year wideout Trevor Davis has been hampered by a hamstring injury in camp. Behind them, the Packers have inexperience, including three drafted rookies mired in different levels of inconsistency during the camp. Jake Kumerow, an undrafted free agent in his fourth NFL training camp, was impressive enough to catch Rodgers’ eye before getting hurt in the Steelers game.

UP FRONT: The defensive line might be the best position group on the team with free agent signee Muhammad Wilkerson joining an already strong core of Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry. The Packers are looking for outside linebacker depth behind veterans Clay Matthews and Nick Perry so they might to get more pass-rush punch from the deep defensive line.

“Everybody on the defense knows Mike Pettine’s defense: be physical,” Wilkerson said. “At the same time, do your job. Everybody make sure you communicate and ultimately that’s about it.”