I haven’t had as much time to post these past few weeks, but with Seattle’s continued struggles I wanted to look at tight end Jimmy Graham who is on pace to average a non-rookie low in pretty much every statistical category. Sigmund Bloom posted an interesting question the other day on Twitter wondering if the Seahawks overestimated Graham’s ability or if they just can not adapt to his talent. As we all know Seattle paid a big price for Graham (their starting center and a 1st round pick) and this has the look of Percy Harvin, Part II- an ill advised trade that might result in the player finding a new home just one year later.
But for all the disappointment, something here just reminds me of Randy Moss in Oakland more than Harvin in Seattle. Harvin was never a top line player. The Seahawks bought into the hype of an often injured player that happened to be the best receiver on a bad team. Graham was, at the least, a really good player before this season. A few years ago I had looked at Moss after his success in New England just to see what in the world they saw there other than just a bargain trade with some upside. Surprisingly Moss’ numbers in Oakland were never awful when he played if you put them in the context of their (lack of) offense.
The general numbers
The above table shows the average performance of Graham with the Saints from 2011 to 2014 compared with his current projection. In terms of general efficiency he is not far off, but with his targets way down his yards have fallen from elite to above average. His touchdowns have fallen dramatically, much to the dismay of fantasy players everywhere. That figure is slightly below average for the position. For the most part the Seahawks don’t have a game changer and instead of a pretty good player at an overvalued price. That price for Graham is going to make things seem even worse than they are.
Factoring in the Offense
The one thing that the numbers above do not take into account is the amount of firepower and skill level of the offense that Graham plays on. I think everyone would agree that Russell Wilson is not Drew Brees. He may be Brees one day, but right now he is not that level of player. The Saints have for years been one of the most daring passing offenses in the NFL and there is a good chance that this inflated the stats of everyone on that team.
Here is how Graham ranks in terms of percent of team offense and, for the final 3 categories, percent above/below team performance.
I think this actually paints a bit more of a complete picture of Graham in Seattle. He is actually being asked to do more than he did in New Orleans in terms of being a target in the offense. Even his touchdown production, which is poor overall, has only declined by 9% of the team output. It’s hard to score the ball on a team where no receivers are really scoring.
The two things that jump out most at me from this table are his yards per reception and catch rates. If there is a problem with Seattle’s use this is probably where to look. In New Orleans, Graham was producing a YPR 7% higher than the team average. In Seattle he is slightly below. Probably not coincidentally his catch rate has improved by a few percent compared to the team average.
The Saints were willing to take risks with the football because a 3 down series wasn’t the end of the world for them. They would just come out the next time and get 7. Seattle runs in a different mold. They take some chances, but they are more calculated with their risk taking.
Use By Field Position
Here is the comparison between Grahams use in Seattle and New Orleans based on where Seattle has the football.
|Own 1-20||Saints||Seahawks||Own 21-50||Saints||Seahawks|
|catch rate||-1.3%||-18.7%||catch rate||1.5%||7.0%|
|Opp 49-20||Saints||Seahawks||Red Zone||Saints||Seahawks|
|catch rate||-11.8%||2.3%||catch rate||-10.9%||-18.2%|
When we look at the two main parts of the field between the 20s Graham remains relatively just as productive within the context of the offense as he was in New Orleans. His overall numbers from the 20 to mid field are actually better in Seattle (he’s on pace for 538 yards on 41 receptions vs an average of 482 on 37 in New Orleans), but once Seattle crosses mid field they go into a more conservative mindset so while Graham gets the same percentage of looks his total numbers appear down.
The more alarming trends are inside the 20’s on both sides of the field. For whatever reason Graham is not used when the Seahawks are insider their own 20, accounting for under 12% of the team targets compared to 21% in New Orleans. His catch rate is comparatively awful so maybe Seattle doesn’t have faith in him, but he also is not getting the opportunity to prove otherwise. Considering how small a sample of opportunities it is they probably should just throw that out.
In the Red Zone he is getting a lot of looks, but they would seem to be different than in New Orleans. I probably could have tried to find depth of target numbers for this but given that he is accounting for a relatively high number of completions you would think his yards would also be high, but they are not. Again this is a small sample and Im sure a Seattle fan can answer this but II have a feeling its screen or bust for Graham and once he doesn’t come up with a pass in the end zone they don’t go back and instead run whereas in New Orleans they just threw the ball.
Whose Fault is the Failure?
To get back to Bloom’s original question I think it is a little of both. There is really no explanation for the lack of use inside the 20s. That is completely on Seattle and their offensive coordinator for not maximizing the use of their best receiver. They probably should consider passing a bit more in other situations as well to make use of him.
That said it takes a very rare receiver to “make the quarterback”. This is why teams with good quarterbacks are often gun-shy on paying monster money to a receiver. The minute a Ben Roethlisberger turns into Michael Vick the clock strikes 12 on an Antonio Brown. James Jones couldn’t keep a job with the Raiders and Giants but he has 483 yards and 6 TDs playing with Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees has not missed a beat without Graham and has even had some big games from his tight end Ben Watson, who is averaging slightly more yards per game than Graham.
While it is common to compare Graham to Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots, Gronkowski has been the more productive of the two. In their best three seasons Gronk has accounted for about 26% of the Patriots passing yards compared to 22% for Graham. The TD production is even more staggering with Gronk nabbing 35% of the teams scores compared to 28% for Graham. In general the two were equal players inside the 20s but between the 20s Gronkowski puts up much more efficient and game changing type of numbers. Graham was really never that level of player and I think we all fell trap to the overall numbers he was putting up in an offense that just threw the ball a lot.
Is There Trade Value?
While Graham may not be Gronkowski and probably can not be the centerpiece of an offense I would be pretty positive that he would have a bigger impact on a team that throws the football more and is willing to overlook the drop here and there and go back to him for a look down the field. While his numbers may have been artificially high in New Orleans they are, similar to Moss in Oakland, artificially low because of the offense he plays in.
That doesn’t mean there are no risks in signing him. Graham’s numbers had declined in 2014 with New Orleans as he seemed to have a bunch of nagging injuries that slowed him down. Graham is also much older than people think and will be 30 next year. There can be concerns about the position in general. Back before the 2014 season I had these futures projections for Graham just based on average decline of once elite tight ends:
Those numbers were almost spot on for 2014 and will likely be high, in part because of the change in offense, in 2015. But if he can stay healthy and get back in a more open offense next year you probably have a chance for a 1,000 yard season with a good number of touchdowns in 2016.
Graham has a $9 million salary next year which teams would probably see as reasonable since they would have no future guarantees in the contract. While on its face that number seems high, remember that Charles Clay just received $13 million this year and $24.5 million over two years. Julius Thomas also received monster money. So if the Seahawks decide that it doesn’t work and is willing to part with him in a similar Percy Harvin style trade package a team might get a good return on the investment provided they run a different style of offense than Seattle.
As Seattle falls further out of the playoff race if there was a time to open up their offense it is now. Not only might they have a more effective offense but they can probably get Grahams numbers up to really increase his trade value if they decide to move on. If they want to keep him, at least more use will give the team a better handle on how well he can mesh with Wilson and how impactful he can be. It may turn out that these last weeks of the year really give the Seahawks staff a fresh look on their offense for next season.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.