Graham, the Seahawks’ newest toy, is part tight end, part receiver and full-time matchup nightmare. He is big enough to overpower cornerbacks, fast enough to run by linebackers and coordinated enough to catch passes in traffic.
Just a year ago, Jimmy Graham went through a public battle for his football identity. Was he a 6-foot-7 receiver who also lined up at tight end, or a 265-pound tight end who also split out like a receiver?
Caught in a contract dispute with the New Orleans Saints, the distinction meant the difference of millions of dollars. But the issue really hit on something more abstract: trying to peg a unique player with traditional labels. His coaches in New Orleans resolved the matter with their own vocabulary.
“We called Jimmy Graham a Joker,” said Carter Sheridan, a member of the Saints’ staff during Graham’s five-year career there. “He’s that guy you don’t know how the defense is going to play him, how they’re going to match up with him. Whatever they did the previous three, four or five weeks, we weren’t going to get what they were giving other teams because of Jimmy.”
Simply the best
Since the start of the 2011 season, Graham leads all NFL tight ends in receptions (355), yards receiving (4,396) and touchdowns (46).
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Graham, the Seahawks’ newest toy, is part tight end, part receiver and full-time matchup nightmare. He is big enough to overpower cornerbacks, fast enough to run by linebackers and coordinated enough to catch passes in traffic (officially, the league ruled last year that Graham was in fact a tight end).
“He’s a freak,” Sheridan said.
Graham, 28, had a down season last year — and still caught 85 passes for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. He struggles blocking and has been susceptible to teams that are physical, the Seahawks included.
But Graham provides coach Pete Carroll with a deadly chess piece to pair with the relentless power of running back Marshawn Lynch and the scrambling of quarterback Russell Wilson.
Heath Evans, a former NFL fullback and current NFL Network analyst, called the combination of Lynch, Wilson and Graham “almost not fair.” He said only two tight ends are feared: Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots and Graham.
“You don’t have to work to get Jimmy open,” Evans said. “You don’t have to work to create a play for Jimmy. Jimmy IS the play.”
The Saints lined Graham out wide by himself because it forced defenses to tip their hand. If a safety lined up over the top of Graham, it usually meant man coverage. If a cornerback followed Graham wide, it typically meant zone.
“Drew Brees could get a good read on what play he likes, and a lot of those were called at the line,” Sheridan said. “He knew what coverage he was getting based on how defenses lined up on Jimmy.”
If Graham ran through a zone, he sucked defenders into his orbit, leaving open space in his wake. He often saw double-teams, or at least forced defenders to keep a wary eye on him, creating openings for other receivers.
“He shifts a decided advantage, because if you don’t match him he’s going to destroy you,” Evans said. “A lot of times with Jimmy, defensive game plans show their hands very, very quickly, and then it’s up to the offensive coordinator to really take advantage.”
Some of Graham’s more-celebrated work is in the red zone. His size and height allow him to outmuscle or outjump defensive backs, and his basketball background makes him a natural pass-catcher.
Of Graham’s 10 touchdown catches last season, all originated in the red zone.
Brees and the Saints liked to throw back-shoulder fades to Graham in the red zone, meaning Brees purposely threw behind Graham. Graham can contort his body while keeping the defender behind him, and he often makes catches when he isn’t open, either in the air or in traffic.
“As offensive coaches, we’d be game-planning and we’d be in a goal-line meeting trying to figure out what play we’d put on,” Sheridan said. “And it was always like, ‘Our best goal-line play is throwing the ball up to Jimmy Graham.’ ”
Wilson and Graham will have to develop that trust.
“You can have him perfectly covered, but you can’t cover as high as he can jump,” said David Thomas, a former backup tight end for the Saints. “I know there were balls that if I would have been in the game, Drew would have thrown it out the back of the end zone.”
Graham has developed into a consistent route-runner. He makes the first 10 yards of his routes look similar, like a pitcher keeping the same throwing motion for a fastball and changeup, so defenders can’t tell if he’s going long or short.
For all he does well, Graham still isn’t a consistent blocker. The Saints didn’t ask him to do much blocking, particularly last season when Graham battled a shoulder injury, and he won’t be able to replicate former Seahawks tight end Zach Miller in the run game.
The other knock on Graham is one that Evans, Sheridan and Thomas each mostly disagreed with: that Graham struggles with toughness and physical teams. Part of that is true.
“I would say he has to get better in the run game,” Thomas said. “When you get up in his face and you have a big, physical guy who can jam him, that’s a tough matchup for him because he is so long and there’s a lot of surface area.”
But Thomas “completely disagreed” that Graham wasn’t tough, and Sheridan said Graham played through a painful shoulder injury last season that hampered him.
“That is ridiculous,” Sheridan said. “That guy is one of the toughest I’ve ever seen. He’s one of the more physical pass-catching tight ends I’ve seen.”
As good as he’s been, Sheridan thinks Graham could be even better. His addition allows Seattle’s offense to evolve. He is a weapon that can harm defenses in multiple ways, from all over the field, and yet he hasn’t tapped his potential.
“If he does, he could be a Hall of Fame tight end,” Sheridan said. “Easy.”
|Jimmy Graham file|
|Graham will be entering his sixth season in the NFL. The tight end (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) was drafted out of Miami with the 95th pick overall (third round) by New Orleans in the 2010 draft.|