When the Seahawks traded starting center Max Unger and a first-round pick for superstar pass-catching tight end Jimmy Graham, it was easy to imagine him adding some much-needed juice to the Seahawks’ air attack. But we’re four weeks into the season now, and Graham has been all but invisible.
Through four games, Graham has 18 receptions for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Those are perfectly decent numbers for a normal tight end, but this is Jimmy Graham, the guy who consistently puts up stats that would make most wide receivers jealous and, at age 28, should still be in his prime. More worrying than the lack of production is how little the Seahawks have tried to feature him in the offense; he’s been targeted a total of 23 times this season, whereas at this point last season he’d been thrown to 41 times.
So, what gives? One of the biggest problems has been Seattle’s offensive line play, which has left Russell Wilson with little time to stand in the pocket and find receivers downfield. Last night, nearly every one of the Seahawks’ positive passing plays were the result of Wilson scrambling out of the pocket and salvaging a broken play with a throw downfield. This would seemingly be an ideal scenario for Graham to thrive in—we’re always told that a good tight end is a quarterback’s ultimate security blanket—but Graham is much more used to being a deep threat. Graham did most of his damage in New Orleans by running down the seams and catching long passes from Drew Brees, but those plays require time to develop.
Here’s one play from last night’s game that pretty well encapsulates what’s been going on with Graham and the Seahawks:
It’s a two tight end set, with Graham on the left side of the formation and Luke Willson on the right. This should be an ideal package for Graham, who can get off the line and run his route while Willson stays behind to pass protect. Graham gets a clean release, but by the time he breaks into his post route Russell Wilson is already backpedaling to avoid the pass rush that Willson and the running back completely failed to contain.
You can also see Graham’s unfamiliarity with his scrambling quarterback on this play. Once the play breaks down, he just floats along the sideline, never really making an effort to improvise a new route and give Wilson a viable target. It’s hard to blame Graham too much for this, as he’s used to catching timed laser beams from Drew Brees, and it takes time to adjust to a quarterback who throws outside of the pocket as often as Wilson does.
Graham has yet to publicly express any frustration with how things have been going, but Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported after Week 2 that Graham was “going to explode” if he didn’t start getting the ball more. From Freeman:
He is telling players, according to players I’ve talked to in that locker room, “Why did you bring me here if this is how you’re going to treat me?”
And if you’re looking for evidence of Graham’s lack of involvement in the passing game affecting his play in other areas, look no further than this blocking effort from last night:
Only so much of this can be solved by improvements to the scheme. Having Graham on the field with another tight end to shore up the pass protection is a good idea, but if Willson is going to keep blocking like he did in the play above, that won’t buy Graham much time. The Seahawks could also try to get the ball in Graham’s hands in the flat, giving him a chance to take the ball and run, but running after the catch has never really been his big thing. What the Seahawks really need is a tight end who can block, catch intermediate and short passes, and be a release valve for Wilson when he scrambles. Graham simply doesn’t fit that profile, though. He’s there to jet past linebackers and jump over safeties, neither of which are going to happen if the Seahawks’ offense continues to operate like it has been.