Luke Willson starting. Cooper Helfet backing him up. The Seahawks shopping for help and depth.
And Jimmy Graham not even on the roster.
It’s 2014 all over again at tight end for the Seahawks — not at all by choice, of course.
The Seahawks officially ended Graham’s debut Seattle season Monday when they put him on injured reserve, before surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. Graham got hurt Sunday in Seattle’s 39-30 win over Pittsburgh when his leg stuck awkwardly in the turf while he was double covered in the end zone on an incomplete pass early in the fourth quarter.
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Coach Pete Carroll was unequivocal Monday when asked if Graham will return to playing before Seattle’s 2016 season begins.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yes,” Carroll said.
The team doesn’t know if that means the 29-year-old Graham, for whom Seattle traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans in March, would be back on the field for the start of training camp in late July.
“I don’t know about the dates of that,” Carroll said, “but there’s plenty of time for him to get back.”
The Orthopaedic Trauma Center at the University of California-San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital states surgery for a patellar tendon rupture usually occurs within four weeks.
“After the surgery, it typically takes between six and eight weeks for the tendon to heal,” the clinic states. “During that time, the knee is kept straight in a brace for a majority of the time to allow the repair to heal without stretching out. Once the surgeon has determined that the repair is healed, physical therapy begins in order to regain motion of the knee and strength in the quadriceps.”
Six to eight weeks of the tendon healing would put Graham into late February, at the long end of those estimates. The Seahawks’ offseason training program usually begins in earnest in March.
Until then, Carroll hinted “we may do some things in next day or so” regarding adding another tight end before the Seahawks (6-5) play at NFC Central leader Minnesota (8-3) on Sunday.
Willson has 12 catches this season behind Graham, including for 12 yards on the play immediately after Graham got hurt. The fifth-round draft choice in 2013 started 10 games last season after Zach Miller had career-ending ankle injuries, including the final four of the 2014 regular season when Seattle rallied to the NFC West title and all three playoff games through his start in Super Bowl 49.
“It’s tough, especially because he was having a great year,” Willson said of Graham. “He’s such a hard worker.
“I’m sure he’s crushed right now. But I know he’ll come back strong next season.”
Indeed, Carroll has spent extra time with Graham since his injury to comfort him. The coach said the injury “breaks my heart.”
The 6-foot-5, 252-pound Willson has gained his quarterback’s and coaches’ trust by flashing wide receiver-like speed. His biggest plays over 34 catches the last two seasons have come on runs after catches.
“Luke’s got plenty of confidence. He’s a vet now, he’s been around,” Carroll said. “There’s nothing that’s going to surprise him now. He’s really in the groove of it and he’s ready to go. That was evidenced by he jumped right up to make a play the next snap, and away he goes. He’ll be fine.”
The 6-foot-7 Graham’s season ends with 48 catches for 605 yards in 11 games. Those are the lowest totals since his rookie year with the Saints in 2010, when he’d yet to become a full-time starter. His two touchdown catches this season were a career low. But he had been emerging in recent games as a more consistent target and threat as Russell Wilson has gotten more time to throw behind an improving offensive line.
The Seahawks filled Graham’s spot on the active roster by re-signing defensive tackle A.J. Francis. Seattle released the part-time Uber driver last week after it had claimed him off waivers from Miami. Francis is on the roster for depth with defensive tackle Jordan Hill recovering from a toe injury and Demarcus Dobbs beginning the league’s concussion protocol. Hill and Dobbs got hurt in Sunday’s win.
Graham has two nonguaranteed years remaining on the four-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Saints before the 2014 season. It paid him $2.9 million guaranteed with another $5.1 million in roster and workout bonuses this season.
SHEAD REMAINS STARTING CB
DeShawn Shead is going to remain the starting right cornerback for the foreseeable future.
As he did Sunday following the win, Carroll praised the part-time safety and nickelback Monday for playing well amid an aerial bombardment by Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ deep-running receivers.
“We feel pretty good about DeShawn coming back again this week,” the coach said.
Shead broke up three deep passes — which is about three more than Cary Williams had been breaking up per game — and four passes total on Sunday. Williams has four breakups for the season.
Carroll likes what Shead brings in coverage and tackling.
Williams, Seattle’s $18 million free-agent signing in March to replace departed free agent Byron Maxwell, went from starter into a sweat suit on the sidelines Sunday. He was inactive for the game.
Asked what Williams’ role now is, the coach said tepidly: “He’s trying to fight for playing time.”
LYNCH’S RECOVERY “ON SCHEDULE”
Carroll was vague on how long running back Marshawn Lynch will remain out but said “everything is on schedule” and going well following Lynch’s abdominal surgery in Philadelphia Wednesday.
Lynch stayed back East through week’s end to begin his rehabilitation, which will now shift to team headquarters. The original estimate the coach gave for a possible return for the league’s leading rusher since 2011 was perhaps three or four weeks, which could be for the Dec. 13 game at Baltimore or Dec. 20 against Cleveland. But, again, the Seahawks aren’t saying anything new about when Lynch might be back.
SUPRISING IRVIN TO START AT MINNESOTA
Starting outside linebacker Bruce Irvin was a “surprise,” in Carroll’s word, in playing 33 of the defense’s 80 snaps Sunday. Irvin had been doubtful to play after missing the previous week’s win over San Francisco with a sprained knee ligament. But he ran better than he had in weeks during Seattle’s pregame warmups Sunday, so in he went first as a nickel pass rusher and then more on early downs as the game went on.
Irvin is on track to start at Minnesota. Veteran Mike Morgan had made his first two starts in five years the last two weeks for him.
The Seahawks should have WR Paul Richardson as a full go at practice Wednesday and returning from his hamstring injury for Sunday’s game, the coach said. The second-round draft choice in 2014 has played in one half of one game this season, getting hurt on his only target and catch, a 40-yard sprint down the sideline Nov. 15 against Arizona. That was three games ago. … Carroll said DB Marcus Burley has a “minor” sprained ankle and may play Sunday at Minnesota.