Jimmy Graham wasn’t content with how the Seahawks used him this past season.
Nor should he have been.
"No,” coach Pete Carroll confirmed last week.
Then Carroll added a caveat for his star tight end: “I don't think any of our receivers were. Ask Doug (Baldwin, who tied Seattle’s team record with 94 catches in the 2016 season). He wasn't content. They want the ball more. That's exactly where you expect them to be, you know. I don't want them to ever be content.”
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Why Graham wasn’t content is also why the Seahawks almost assuredly will have him back for a third season next fall. That’s despite any temptation the team may feel at being able to save $10 million against their salary cap for 2017 by releasing the 30-year old.
Here’s why that’s not going to happen:
▪ The team isn’t as strapped for cap space and cash as it’s 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.
▪ 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 and ‘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 the 6-foot-7 most prolific receiving tight end in the game 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.
“Just a fantastic talent and a great weapon for us,” Carroll said at the time of the startling deal. “I’m sure he’ll be a great benefit for our passing game and for the productivity that we want down there. We always want to run the football, but we need those targets. And he brings us an obvious opportunity to get the ball in the end zone.”
Obvious. 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 while making the fourth Pro Bowl of his career, Seattle’s offense was 4 percent lower in red-zone efficiency with him than in the 2014 season that prompted them to trade for him.
They simply haven’t used Graham enough down close.
In 2015, Wilson was still seeking chemistry with his new tight end. Baldwin was co-leading the NFL with a Seahawks-record 14 touchdown catches. Marshawn Lynch was still the lead runner and team’s identity, just before his first injuries then retirement. And Graham was not used to having to break off his routes to match Wilson’s improvisational scrambles.
The result: Seattle targeted Graham just nine times in 11 games in the red zone, for only 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 targeting Graham in the red zone that season. Graham’s two touchdown catches that year were a career low.
Familiarity in year two should have spawned red-zone success. But Graham’s rehabilitation from surgery for his tricky torn patellar tendon in his knee 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 most alarming example of not using Graham when the Seahawks needed to most was on Christmas Eve. Needing a win at home over the sub-.500 Cardinals to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs on the next-to-last weekend of the regular season, 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.
It appeared he was on his way to being Wilson’s receiver on fourth down from the 1 in the second quarter. But Arizona end Rodney Gunter stormed through Seattle’s porous offensive line untouched to sack Wilson before the quarterback had a chance to look for his huge tight end. Seattle lost that day, and that’s the reason its divisional-round game was at the Georgia Dome where they lost to the frenzied Falcons instead of hosting them at CenturyLink Field on Jan. 14.
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 just 1.1 times per game for a passer rating of 79 inside the 20.
They haven’t targeted Graham a single time in the red zone in 11 of his 29 games as a Seahawk.
Yet 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. They always could -- except for Antonio Brown; he caught about as many as you can catch.
“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 Schenider 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 in non-guaranteed base salary, fifth-highest on the Seahawks in 2017. He will get a $2 million bonus if he is on Seattle roster March 11, the third day of the 2017 league year.
The Seahawks could offer Graham a multi-year 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 ultra 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’s worst case would be a compensatory choice in the top half of the 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.