The Seahawks have agreed to a trade with the Saints to acquire tight end Jimmy Graham in exchange for center Max Unger and a first-round pick.
They were, Seattle general manager John Schneider said, the kind of phone conversations NFL executives who are friendly with each other routinely have this time of year.
A few days ago, Schneider and New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis had chatted about, as Schneider said, “general things.’’ Where each team stood heading into the NFL free-agent signing period Tuesday, players each team might be considering moving, etc.
Somewhere along the way, Schneider heard the name Jimmy Graham.
“There are a lot of names that are talked about,’’ Schneider said. “You just never know how serious people are.’’
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Schneider, though, eventually learned that the Saints were indeed willing to deal Graham, even if he is one of the more dangerous tight-end receiving threats in the NFL and at age 28 in the prime of his career.
The poll has expired. Thank you for your submissions.And that led to Tuesday, when the teams pulled off one of the bigger blockbuster trades in Seattle history, as the Seahawks acquired Graham and a 2015 fourth-round draft pick for center Max Unger and a 2015 first-round pick.
“This is an offensive weapon that we’re adding,’’ Schneider said of Graham, whose 46 touchdowns since 2011 are the third-most in the NFL behind the 54 by Marshawn Lynch and 50 by Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant. “A guy that is a big-time difference maker at his position. Obviously a top two or three tight end in the league. We feel like it’s adding a big receiver, and anytime we can do that we’re going to do it.’’
Though Schneider said the teams had been talking for a few days, the move came out of the blue to the public. As the free-agency period dawned at 1 p.m. Pacific time, a few Twitter rumors hinted that Graham was on the trading block. A few minutes later came news of his trade to Seattle.
That Seattle was searching for a playmaking tight end, though, was no surprise. Seattle on Friday released injury-plagued tight end Zach Miller and had been reported to have made an aggressive pitch for free agent Julius Thomas, who signed instead with Jacksonville.
Schneider said tight end “absolutely was’’ a position the team targeted to improve in the off-season.
Luke Willson, who took over when Miller was lost after three games because of an ankle injury, led Seattle tight ends with 22 receptions for 365 yards in 2014.
The 6-foot-7 Graham, a former basketball player at the University of Miami who played just one year of college football, had 85 catches for 889 yards last season and has had no fewer than 85 catches each of the past four years, with a high of 99 in 2011. He has scored nine or more touchdowns each of the past four seasons as well.
“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,’’ Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
The trade didn’t come without a cost — or as Schneider said “Any time you’re making these types of trades for a player like this, it’s not just going to be a hand-over.’’
Seattle now will be without a first-round pick — unless it acquires one later– for the third consecutive year, having dealt their 2013 pick for Percy Harvin and last year trading down into the second round to acquire more picks.
And in Unger, Seattle loses one of the key cogs of its offensive line and a team leader who was the third-longest-tenured member of the Seahawks, drafted in the second round out of Oregon in 2009.
Unger, though, has battled a number of injuries the past two seasons and played just six regular-season games in 2014. He is due to make $4.5 million in 2015, and ESPN reported that the Seahawks might have considered releasing Unger in a salary-cap move if they hadn’t been able to trade him.
Seattle started four centers last season, but at the moment only one is on the roster — Patrick Lewis, who ended last season as the backup to Unger. Schneider and Carroll each said the team would continue to explore options to bolster its offensive line.
Graham is entering the second season of a four-year, $40 million contract signed last summer, which surely helped factor into the decision by the Saints to trade him. New Orleans also appears to be in rebuild mode after going 7-9 last season. And Graham has battled nagging injuries the past two years, including a shoulder ailment in 2014.
Seattle’s net gain in its cap as a result of the trade was roughly $4.5 million.
Schneider, though, said the team has to be willing to keep making bold moves if it is to remain at a Super Bowl-contending level.
“We have to continue moving this thing forward,’’ Schneider said. “We always talk about not having any finish lines, and this is just part of it — tough decisions, but exciting futures as well.’’