To the naked eye, the new Green Bay Packers might not look much different than the old team.
Aaron Rodgers, arguably the NFL’s best individual talent, is still commanding the huddle. Jordy Nelson is gone, but receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb remain. And outside linebacker Clay Matthews anchors the pass rush for another season.
There's no question, however, that the 2018 Packers are different.
Under new general manager Brian Gutekunst, the club didn't sit out free agency and pass on major signings, as Green Bay did so often in the past. Former GM Ted Thompson's careful and methodical approach did lead to a title in 2010, but the Packers have lacked talent around Rodgers since.
Gutekunst didn’t go guns-a-blazin' with the team’s bankroll, but he did land two significant weapons on the open market: Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.
Graham, 31, signed a three-year, $30 million deal with $11 million guaranteed - a major haul for the Packers, a team that focused mainly on defense during free agency throughout the Thompson era. Wilkerson, 28, reunites with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who oversaw the Jets' defense when Wilkerson was at his best in New York.
Graham might be aging, but he's still capable of maximizing his 6-foot-7 frame alongside Rodgers, who's a master of escaping the pocket and executing back-shoulder and jump-ball throws. Graham has built his career on winning tough battles for those contested catches.
A five-time Pro Bowler, Graham did his first Lambeau Leap on Thursday night after hauling in an eight-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers during preseason action against the Steelers.
Rodgers made the throw after dodging an effective three-man rush with a pump fake and slight roll to his left, giving Graham enough time for an inside move at the top of his route against rookie safety Terrell Edmunds. Rodgers put extra air under the throw, making sure only his towering target could come down with the ball.
Expect to see plenty of those connections this season as the Packers attempt to stabilize an area of their offense that hasn't looked the same since tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a spinal cord injury in 2013, cutting his season short and eventually ending his career.
Finley racked up 55-plus receptions and 660-plus yards three times in four seasons from 2009 to 2012. In the five years since Finley's retirement, the Packers have had four different tight ends lead the position.
Combine the catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns from Martellus Bennett’s 2017 season and Jared Cook’s 2016 season, and Finley's best three years still come out on top.
Also, only two 100-plus yard receiving games have been recorded by a Packers tight end since the start of the 2011 season. Graham hit the 100-yard mark 16 times in the same span while playing for the Saints and Seahawks.
In 2018, if Graham and the Packers' running backs stay healthy, Rodgers should have enough weapons around him to push his team into Super Bowl contention. He's capable of venturing into Philadelphia for an ice-cold January playoff game and coming out victorious. He already pulled off the feat once, bouncing the Eagles out of the playoffs at Lincoln Financial Field in a wild-card game on Jan. 9, 2011.
A few weeks later, Rodgers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the first and only time.
Rodgers and the Packers have since flirted with another title, losing in the NFC Championship Game twice over the past four seasons. Graham and Wilkerson could provide the boost Green Bay needs to play in another Super Bowl.