by Paul West
Jimmy Graham should be having the time of his life right now.
Graham’s tale is, in many ways, a quintessential rags-to-riches story. He spent much of his youth as the object of bullying, having been placed in a North Carolina group home by his mother. He was rescued by way of adoption, and went on to get solid grades and become a high school basketball star. He went on to play Division I basketball at the University of Miami, where he graduated with a double major. Then–get this–he stuck around to go to grad school and play Division I tight end, where he played well enough to get himself drafted to the NFL in the third round. It gets better: he went to the Pro Bowl in his first year with the resurgent New Orleans Saints, breaking numerous team records. He broke the single-season NFL record for yards by a tight end, held by Air Coryell‘s legendary tight end Kellen Winslow. He’s number two all time in single-season touchdowns by a tight end, behind Rob Gronkowski–with whom he’s been compared for the past several years, as part of a viable debate regarding who’s the NFL’s most dangerous tight end.
At the end of the 2013 season, Jimmy Graham became a free agent. The Saints placed the dreaded franchise tag on their star receiver, which set off an at-times chippy period of negotiations. Graham made the legitimate contention that he should get ‘wide receiver money,’ as he had actually lined up at wideout a great percentage of the time and was the Saints’ most consistent and dangerous weapon on offense. He lost the battle, but when the Saints finally traded him to the Seattle Seahawks, he might have thought he’d won the war.
At the time of the trade, the Seahawks had already won a Super Bowl. They had a young quarterback, Russell Wilson, who was known for extending plays and making good decisions and coming up big in the biggest moments. They had Marshawn Lynch, one of the league’s most fearsome running backs; they had a dominant defense; they had a QB who’d already won on the biggest stage possible, and their biggest question on offense seemed to be the lack of to-notch weaponry in the passing game. The perception was that Wilson was maximizing his options on offense, but the lack of a true game-breaking receiver (despite the rising profile of the oft-explosive Golden Tate) was the one thing standing between this team and a possible dynasty. The addition of a freakish game-breaker at tight end seemed a perfect fit for a QB that extended plays and found whomever was open; the addition of a freakish game-breaker at tight end seemed a perfect fit for an offense that forced defenses to stack heavily against the run but one one key piece away in the passing game. With the threat of Lynch of front and Tate streaking over the top, Graham could line up all over the field as in New Orleans and create size and/or speed mismatches against a variety of defenders. It all seemed to make so much sense.
The funny thing is, as soon as he got to the Seahawks, there were already rumblings that they’d use him primarily as a ‘blocking tight end.’ Astoundingly, this seems to be exactly how things are playing out.
In last night’s game against the Green Bay Packers, Graham should have been a primary target. The Packers were missing one of their starting linebackers, which forced them to play star linebacker Clay Matthews out of position. In their recently developed rivalry with the Seahawks, they’d become accustomed to gameplanning for the pre-Graham offense, which could have made it easier to keep the Packers guessing by lining Graham up in different spots and roaming him around the defense to create headaches. No such luck.
Jimmy Graham had exactly one target in the first half. He caught exactly one pass, for 11 yards, in the entire game. The run game faltered, leaving Wilson scrambling for space for much of the game–but Wilson conspicuously failed to seek out one of the game’s biggest matchup nightmares. The blame for this shouldn’t fall on Wilson so much, as the Packers’ defense probably wisely clamped down on Graham once the plays broke down, leaving other options open like the elusive Doug Baldwin. But from a schematic standpoint, it’s hard to imagine not getting even a moderate amount of looks for the guy who started breaking records as soon as he entered the league. Using Graham as a decoy is understandable; using him selectively, rather than forcing the issue, is wise. Just because you have Jimmy Graham doesn’t mean you have to throw it to him fifteen times a game. But two in an entire game, against a depleted linebacker corps, is baffling. Even more baffling is the appearance that the Seahawks intended to use Graham primarily in a blocking-oriented role. Which begs the question: why did they get him, and if their offense will continue to be oriented around the tight ends mainly being protection-blockers, why not trade him?
The Seahawks already have a crafty-once-in-a-while receiver at tight end in Luke Willson. More than half of the teams in the NFL would give up a fair amount to acquire an upgrade like Graham at tight end, making him an incredibly valuable trade chip–and they could opt to trade him to an AFC team, thus keeping him out of the conference and not having to run across him in their division or a potential playoff game. If they were looking to trade for a more comfortable blocking presence at tight end, they could get that and then some in return for a tight end that can line up half the time as a dangerous wide receiver.
Again, just because the Seahawks have Jimmy Graham doesn’t mean they need to totally distort the offense to shoehorn him the ball. Fit, chemistry and schematics all matter more than a lot of people realize, and it’s possible that regardless of threat potential he just isn’t the kind of tight end they need. It wouldn’t be the first time an elite talent didn’t fit into an offense’s plan, nor will it be the last time. But if they aren’t going to use him in the way that makes him most dangerous, why would they give up so much to get him in the first place?