Acquired in a March 2015 trade, Graham arrived with expectations that probably were unrealistic. He then suffered a patellar-tendon injury in Week 11 that knocked him out for the rest of the season and led to much conjecture about when he can return, and at what level.

Share story

With the Seahawks set to report for training camp July 29 (practices begin the next day), it’s time to look at the players I feel are most pivotal in 2016.

Call it “16 for ’16,’’ as we count down the 16 most important Seahawks in 2016, unveiling one new player each day until the team reports.

The countdown continues at No. 11 with tight end Jimmy Graham. He would be on just about every preseason list one could come up with — most intriguing, interesting and important.

Player: Jimmy Graham.

Seahawks 16 for '16

Position: Tight end.

2016 contract status: Graham is entering the third year of a four-year, $40 million contract signed before his final season with New Orleans in 2014. He is due a base salary of $8.9 million in 2016, which makes him the NFL’s highest-paid tight end.

Expected 2016 role: Starting tight end.

Why he’s ranked here: There may be no Seahawks player that NFL national observers are more curious to watch this season than Graham.

Acquired in a March 2015 trade with New Orleans, Graham arrived with expectations that probably were unrealistic. He then suffered a patellar-tendon injury in the 11th game that knocked him out for the rest of the season and led to much conjecture about when he can return, and at what level.

Coach Pete Carroll said when minicamp ended, though, that he “absolutely’’ expects Graham to be ready for the start of the season.

If so, expect Graham to return as the starting tight end.

At the time of his injury Graham led the Seahawks in targets and receptions, which might surprise those who wondered if the Seahawks knew how to use them after his numbers had dropped from his New Orleans days.

In fact, through nine games Graham was on track for a season that wasn’t all that different from his New Orleans days. Also worth considering: The Seahawks have had roughly 50-50 run-pass ratios the past few years, and the Saints have been among the NFL’s most pass-heavy teams, usually throwing it about 10 percent more than Seattle has.

At the end of Week 9, Graham was on track for 73 receptions and 873 yards — he had at least 85 catches and 889 yards each of the previous four seasons with the Saints. The ninth week is a decent cutoff point, as the Seahawks beat the 49ers in a fairly run-dominated game in Week 10 and Graham was injured in Week 11.

At that point, Graham was averaging almost seven targets per game (62 in nine games). He averaged 7.75 in 2014 with the Saints.

Where Graham didn’t make much of an impact was in the red zone. He had just two touchdowns, something the Seahawks specifically cited as an area they hoped Graham’s arrival would improve.

Maybe it was the lack of touchdowns — plays that tend to get the most attention — that led to the perception that he had been vastly underused by Seattle compared with his New Orleans days.

The idea that Graham was largely ignored is one that Carroll has resisted vehemently this offseason.

Asked at the league meetings if the Seahawks needed to figure out a way to get Graham more involved in the offense, Carroll responded: “We don’t have to do that. I know that seems like the focus — he had 50 catches (officially, 48) and he was off to a marvelous start with us. We wanted to get him he ball in the red zone more. We didn’t do as good of a job there as we thought, by the time he played eight games with us, whatever it was (actually 11), we would have thought he’d have more touchdown catches (he had two).

“So that was part of maybe developing his impact with our team. But it was just a matter of timing, he and (quarterback) Russell (Wilson) being together and executing better. Both of those guys doing better to function at a higher level. That’s just the natural progression of developing a rapport with a player, particularly of this style.”

Carroll ended his lengthy response by saying, “It’s going to happen. We felt we saw all of the examples of that that we needed to see.’’

Carroll also didn’t seem to agree with one commonly held assumption that arose late in the 2015 season — that the offense was better without Graham than with him.

That answer probably should have been enough to quash any speculation that the Seahawks might look to release Graham, whose $9 million salary-cap hit includes no dead money in 2016.

But if more evidence was needed that the Seahawks still see Graham as a key part of their plans, general manager John Schneider delivered it during one of his offseason media availabilities.

“Jimmy is a mismatch,’’ he said. “And in our opinion, there are only four or five of those tight ends in the league.”

In other words, Graham fits their prototype for a core player — someone who possesses unique attributes.

So assuming Graham returns to full health this season, expect the Seahawks to show every confidence in him that he can be the kind of difference-maker they saw glimpses of last season.

That’ll leave it to Graham to repay the Seahawks’ faith in him and be an offensive weapon that can help change the outcome of some of the types of games they lost last season.