Seattle Seahawks

Why it’s probable that we haven’t seen the last of Graham

gbell@thenewstribune.com

Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham AP

You and Jimmy Graham have at least one thing in common.

No, it’s not that you are also a freakishly athletic, 6-foot-7 former college basketball shot-blocker and rebounder plus a four-time Pro Bowl tight end.

It’s that both of you weren’t content with how the Seahawks used Graham this season. Nor should you have been.

Seattle could save $10 million against its salary cap for 2017 by releasing the 30-year-old before his $2 million roster bonus comes due in March.

Here’s why that’s not going to happen:

▪  The team isn’t as strapped for cap room as it has been entering previous offseasons. The Seahawks have an estimated $32.9 million in space under their $170 million salary cap for 2017.

▪  Seattle’s offense has yet to have Graham free from the effects of injury for an entire season.

▪  Most of all, even when the Seahawks have had him healthy, they haven’t used him for the reason they got him.

It’s not that Graham hasn’t been the 80- or 90-catch guy he was with Drew Brees and the Saints. He never was going to be that in Seattle’s offense. He’s been getting a fraction of the targets he got in New Orleans. And the Seahawks have run the ball the last two seasons with Graham 107 more times (904 total rushes in 2015-16) than New Orleans did its last two seasons with him and Brees together.

Seattle traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans in March 2015 to get Graham, specifically to fix its problems in the red zone.

The Seahawks ranked 20th in the NFL in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents’ 20-yard line the season before the trade, a rate of 51.5 percent.

But two seasons later, Graham’s still lacking the requisite opportunities to truly make a difference around the goal line.

In 2015, when Graham played 11 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in late November, the Seahawks were 16th in red-zone TD scoring, at 55.6 percent.

In 2016, they sank to 25th, scoring touchdowns just 47.6 percent of the time while inside the opponents’ 20.

Yes, even though Graham set Seahawks records for tight ends with 65 catches and 923 yards this past season, Seattle’s offense was 4 percentage points worse in red-zone efficiency than in the 2014 season that prompted them to trade for him.

Why?

They simply haven’t used Graham enough near the goal line.

In 2015, Wilson was still seeking chemistry with his new tight end. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin shared the NFL lead with a Seahawks-record 14 touchdown catches. Marshawn Lynch was still the lead runner and team’s identity, just before his injuries and eventual retirement. And Graham was not used to breaking off his routes to match Wilson’s improvisational scrambles.

The result: Seattle targeted Graham in the red zone nine times in 11 games in 2015, netting three receptions, one touchdown (of 1 yard, in his first Seahawks game, at St. Louis in September 2015) and one interception. Wilson had a passer rating of 39.8 when targeting Graham inside the 20 that season. Graham’s two touchdown catches overall that year were a career low.

Familiarity in year two should have spawned red-zone success. But Graham’s rehabilitation from surgery for his torn patellar tendon lasted into September. Wilson didn’t throw to him in the red zone until the third game, against San Francisco. The “crazy special,” two-touchdown night against Buffalo Nov. 7 — when he caught passes one-handed in the end zone while a defender was holding his other arm — showed what a weapon Graham is near the goal line.

“Bad man!” a smiling Wilson yelled as Graham talked in the locker room after that game, one of the few times the tight end spoke to the media this past season.

But those were as many red-zone scores as Graham had in the final seven games combined.

The Seahawks’ most alarming example of not using Graham was on Christmas Eve. Needing a win at home over the sub-.500 Cardinals to help secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Seahawks did not score on 12 consecutive snaps inside the Arizona 19. Graham was not targeted on any of those dozen red-zone plays.

Seattle lost that day. That’s the reason its divisional-round playoff game was at the Georgia Dome, where they lost to the frenzied Falcons instead of hosting them at CenturyLink Field.

In 18 games this past season, including the two in the postseason, Seattle targeted Graham in the red zone 22 times. He caught 10 of those passes for 112 yards and five touchdowns.

Over his first two seasons with the Seahawks, 29 games, they are 13 for 31 throwing to Graham in the red zone for 120 yards, six touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 79.3.

They absolutely did not trade for Graham to be throw to him so sporadically inside the 20.

But Carroll sounded optimistic about Graham’s 2017 last week while assessing his 2016.

“I thought Jimmy had a terrific year,” the coach said. “He was explosive. He was dynamic. He blocked like he’s never blocked before. He became a factor on the perimeter blocking stuff, and he’s a highlight film. He’s got so many big plays that he made during the year.

“Every receiver could always catch more balls, you know. … So I’m excited for him to come back.

“Imagine how much better he’ll feel. Look what he had to undergo last offseason to get back and be in the phenomenal shape that he was. This will allow him to come back again. He should be stronger this year and more fit this year. He’s got a great work ethic about him. He’s naturally built and physiqued and all that, so I think nothing but really cool stuff for us as we go forward.”

Carroll said he and general manager John Schneider are well aware Graham is entering the final year of the four-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Saints before the trade. It’s scheduled to pay him $7.9 million in non-guaranteed base salary, fifth-highest on the Seahawks in 2017. He will get a $2 million bonus if he is on Seattle’s roster March 11, the third day of the 2017 league year.

The Seahawks could offer Graham a multiyear extension with guaranteed money and a more team-friendly cap number for this coming year.

More likely, because they aren’t pinched right now against the cap, they will let Graham play out the final season of his deal knowing he would be extremely motivated to earn one more big contract after he turns 31 in November. If he gets a better deal elsewhere for 2018 and beyond, Seattle might receive a compensatory choice in the top half of the 2019 draft for losing him to unrestricted free agency in March 2018.

“We’re always looking at all of those,” Carroll said. “We know this area, and they’re in their last year, too. We know how that’s going and those conversations come up when we can get to them.

“I’m glad you reminded us, but John is on that.”

All that means it makes little sense — financial or common — for the Seahawks to shed Graham before they’ve fully used him in the way they intended when they got him.

Yes, to use him more in the red zone.

EXTRA POINT

Starting cornerback DeShawn Shead posted on Twitter that he had successful surgery to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament injury in his left knee suffered in the playoff loss at Atlanta on Jan. 14. “Surgery went really well with great results! Will be back playing with my bros and for the 12s sooner than later! #LOB” Shead wrote. The Seahawks say it may be into the 2017 season before he returns. He is a scheduled to become a restricted free agent in March.

Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle

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