On Sunday the Seahawks experienced a large boost and a large blow to their playoff chances, winning a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers gave them an 11 percent boost to their odds of making the playoffs, and losing Jimmy Graham appears to have hurt their future.
Some of my best friends are Seahawks fans. Most of my family are Seahawks fans. One of my best friends, and former (and maybe future) writer for this website Sean Kramer tweeted about the Seahawks losing Graham:
And my father in law, a guy who doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook, and who is extremely unlikely to read this blog post, spent some of the latter half of Thanksgiving discussing with me how the Seahawks need to get rid of Jimmy Graham.
I would argue that neither is completely wrong, and neither is completely right.
Part of the issue is the perception that Jimmy Graham has been disappointing. Coming into Sunday’s action he was actually on pace for more yards than he gained in 2014. He did that in an offense that has a similar effect on counting stats as Coor’s Field did for the likes of Dante Bichette and Jeff Cirillo. The Saints pass the ball a lot, and before the season I pointed out how Graham’s usage rate would interact with his counting stats, and how those stats would interact with the fans’ perception of Graham.
Seahawks fans have taken to social media each week to implore the Seahawks, Darrell Bevell, and Russell Wilson to do more to get Graham involved in the offense. Graham is a tight end with multiple 1,000+ yard seasons under his belt, and multiple seasons with double-digit touchdowns. There was a strong possibility that if Graham had stayed healthy, he wouldn’t have eclipsed those arbitrary milestones.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
In New Orleans Graham received about 19 percent of all targets. He did that in an offense that has had a revolving door of undersized receivers, and Marques Colston. He did that with one of the league’s most prolific passers, and in one of the league’s most pass-happy offenses.
In Seattle Graham received 74 of 310 targets in the Seahawks passing offense, good for nearly 24 percent of all targets. Wilson completed 48 of those targets, good for about a 65 percent completion percentage when throwing to Graham.
Comparatively, Doug Baldwin has had two more catches than Graham in 10 less targets. Wilson is completing passes to Baldwin at a better than 78 percent rate. And he’s near-or-better than 70 percent to Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett.
The easy way to look at that would be to say that Wilson shouldn’t be passing to Graham at all. He should be focusing on the receivers to which he’s had the most success. That’s short-sighted. Graham’s presence has likely played a role in the Seahawks offensive strategy, and the strategy of opposing defenses. The relative success of the Seahawks receivers, the same ones who will protest their characterization as “pedestrian,” but who also see themselves trying to be replaced every offseason, is likely owed in part to the Seahawks acquisition, and focus on Jimmy Graham.
It also doesn’t mean, however, that Graham has certainly cemented himself a spot in the long-term future of the Seahawks. Graham’s knee injury is serious, and while the Seahawks have been criticized for not focusing enough of their offense on Graham, it’s also become apparent that he perhaps isn’t the independently dominant force that the media has perceived him to be. Graham can’t be an entire offense. He can be a very useful, near-elite component of a competent passing game, but he probably won’t succeed as a disproportionate focal point. This isn’t new information if you understand usage rates, or understand football beyond the box score of your fantasy team, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant.
Graham is also entering his Age 30 season. The recovery for a patellar tendon surgery has been reported around six-to-nine months. Graham is due to cost a $9.0 million cap hit in 2016, and will do so on a team that is going deeper into the second contracts of some of its young stars. The team can cut him and recoup all, or basically all of that $9 million, which would ease the team’s cap issues to a large degree, something they’ll likely need in 2016.
Of course, the team gave up a first round pick and their starting center for Graham. An argument could be made that with such an investment, the Seahawks are pot-committed into keeping Graham. The absence of Max Unger could be at least an anecdotal cause of the struggles had by Marshawn Lynch, though it’s hard not to point to injuries, especially with the emergence of Thomas Rawls. A counter argument could be made that the lack of a true blocking tight end on the entire roster has led to Lynch’s decline. Of all the positions the Seahawks are reasonably well-equipped to replace, a receiving tight end is high on the list.
And the Seahawks have appeared to value first round picks differently than just about any team in football. They’ve perpetually reached into what appeared to be second or third round talent when they’ve taken their first round pick. They appear to see greater value in taking a player for whom they have an affinity later in the draft. A first round pick isn’t of no value, and the Seahawks shouldn’t be treating first round picks as if they have no value, but their valuation of first round picks indicates that perhaps they value first round picks at a lower value than any other team in the NFL.
Jimmy Graham has been fine. He met realistic expectations, and arguably exceeded them. But if he’s played his last game in Seattle, I wouldn’t be completely shocked.