Three seasons after being traded to the Seahawks for Max Unger and a first-round draft pick, Graham hasn’t made nearly enough of an impact. And as free agency beckons for Graham, it would benefit all parties to call this a noble miscalculation and move on.
Jimmy Graham came to Seattle in March 2015 with visions of grandeur by the Seahawks. Sure, he cost starting Super Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick, a high cost indeed, but Pete Carroll and John Schneider were convinced they had acquired a difference-making tight end.
Three seasons later, however, Graham hasn’t made nearly enough of a difference for Seattle. And as free agency beckons for Graham, it would benefit all parties to call this a noble miscalculation and move on.
It was never quite the marriage it seemed destined to be. Graham’s first season was marred by a serious knee injury in the 11th game. His second season featured gaudy statistics — the most catches (65) and yards (923) for a Seahawks tight end — but Seattle still couldn’t master Graham’s hoped-for dominance in the red zone, with just six touchdown catches.
And this past season, while Russell Wilson finally figured out how to get the 6-foot-7 Graham the ball in the end zone (his 10 receiving TDs were most in the NFL by a tight end and tied for second overall), it was too often boom or bust with Graham. He had five games with fewer than 10 receiving yards, including a one-reception-for-minus-1-yard disappearance in the season’s most critical game against the Rams, a 42-7 Seattle loss.
Wilson has called Graham one of his best friends on the team, and during his locker-cleaning interview Monday memorably referred to him as “a unicorn,” which the quarterback defined thusly: “There’s only so many of these guys you can find, that can do what he can do.”
But perversely, the Seahawks at times seemed intent on making Graham into something he is not. What he is, of course, is a freak athlete who has the uncanny ability to go up and get an alley-oop pass. It took Wilson time to master that, and in the interim, Graham never really took to the essential task of Seattle receivers to find a way to get open while Wilson scrambled around. And Graham wasn’t renowned for his blocking, but the Seahawks kept trying to fit that square peg into a round hole.
It seemed at times that Graham wasn’t willing to sell out to make the difficult catch. Carroll even called him out on it after a loss to Jacksonville, saying that on one throw by Wilson that was intercepted, “Jimmy’s got to make that play, hopefully, for us, where it’s either him or nobody. That’s kind of what we are counting on right there.”
Graham finished tied for second in the NFL in dropped passes with seven. His total yardage (520) was his lowest since his rookie year with New Orleans, and his yards per catch (9.1) were the lowest of his career by more than a yard. In other words, Graham in 2017 was a TD machine with pedestrian contribution elsewhere.
And now he’s a free agent. Common wisdom is that Graham will use that power to find a team more conducive to his skill set — perhaps even back with Drew Brees in New Orleans.
Graham by all accounts was a good teammate and popular in the Seahawks locker room, but he never felt fully vested in Seattle. Certainly, he never revealed much of his personality to fans, making himself virtually unavailable to the media except for extremely rare (and brief) interview sessions. He was, by and large, the star who never was.
The Seahawks could ensure the retention of Graham by slapping him with the franchise tag. But that’s something they haven’t employed since 2010 and are unlikely to use on a 32-year-old (in November) tight end who would stand to earn over $11 million for 2018.
Carroll said Tuesday the Seahawks have talked to Graham, and added, “We love Jimmy, and we would love him to be with us.”
The Seahawks, at this point, would be better served using the saved money — they paid Graham nearly $10 million this past season — to better navigate the salary cap while addressing their myriad needs. There are some intriguing tight ends on the free-agent market (including former Husky Austin Seferian-Jenkins) who would come much cheaper. The Seahawks probably could find a way to bring back Luke Willson, himself a free agent, to join holdovers Nick Vannett and Tyrone Swoopes.
The subtext of the Seahawks’ offseason is that they want to get younger, and this is one such opportunity. They could even get better in the process; other than touchdowns, Graham’s production was not overly daunting, nor was his blocking.
It seems time to make a clean break. Considering the value of a first-round pick, and that Unger is still a respected and productive player for the Saints, named a team captain the past two years — and bearing in mind the dire straits of Seattle’s offensive line — you’d have to call this one a net loss for the Seahawks.
When the trade was made, Carroll told reporters, “The opportunity to get a player that can make these kinds of plays that we’ve seen Jimmy Graham do for a number of years really got us excited.”
Unfortunately, though, the Seahawks — through fault that was partially their own — saw those kind of plays far less than they expected.