I'll admit it- when the Jacksonville Jaguars signed free agent tight end Julius Thomas I was pretty bummed. After all, the Seahawks had a throbbing need for a big play / red zone threat in the passing game, a need that was cruelly highlighted on their final offensive snap of the season. Thomas represented a fix, a touchdowny talent whose numbers, while perhaps trumped up by the system and quarterback he enjoyed in Denver, nevertheless make him a notable weapon and earned him some serious scratch on the open market.
I had resigned myself to hoping that Jordan Cameron would come in and represent a slightly less potent, slightly more delicate option for Russell Wilson and company. Or that maybe this year Anthony McCoy could stay healthy. Or that maybe, just maybe Andre Johnson had enough left in him to provide a year or two of leadership to this, and I'll say it, underwhelming receiver group.
Then, seemingly without provocation, the earth stopped cold on its axis. The fragile perceptions of gravity and direction on a tiny organic marble spinning through infinite darkness - the sheer volume of which reduces our greatest achievements and aspirations to caterpillar husks - fell from our eyes like divine scales with one monumental declaration: Jimmy Graham had been traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Graham is the type of player whose acquisition induces the same uncomfortably primal lust that accompanies the first drop of Ginuwine's "Pony" at a high school dance. And while the chaperons look nervously at each other and discuss how to break it up, I'll be the gangly 14 year old in the middle of that pubescent sweatfest, grinding on everything that has hips and screaming at the ceiling with punch in one hand a lighter in the other.
So what exactly are the Seahawks getting? For starters, they're getting Russell Wilson's first legitimate red zone threat, the kind of guy that you line up a number of different ways near the end zone and have every reason to believe that he'll win the battle. Per Doug Farrar, Wilson was one of only five QBs in the NFL to complete less than 50% of his red zone passes last year. Now add a 6'6" target with borderline-NBA jumping ability and 10 5/8" hands to the arsenal and see what happens to that number.
Simply put, Graham is a touchdown maker, and for as broad and ham-fisted as that term sounds, and as much as I love all the intricate indicators and obscure statistics in football, it is still game that comes down to scoring more points than your opponent. To that end, only two position players have done more than Graham to help their teams over the past four seasons. Since 2011, just Marshawn Lynch (62) and Dez Bryant (50) have scored more TDs than Graham's 46. Let that sink in- the Seahawks now employ two of three most prolific paydirt-finders the NFL has seen in the last four years, or over almost any four year stretch in the history of the league.
Graham's presence helps in indirect ways, too. As Hugh Millen pointed out yesterday, despite Lynch's prowess, his career TD conversion rate from the one yard line is 42.9% (44.8% in Seattle, 37.5% with Wilson), well below the league average of 54.7%. Last year he was just one for five. Much of that has to do with defenses having the luxury of knowing that Marshawn is Seattle's only outlying goalline threat and clogging the defensive front as a result. Those numbers are not an indictment of Lynch nearly as much as they are a highlighting of Seattle's desperate need for another option.
Now, Seattle forces defenses to choose the evil less terrifying- stacking the box to stop Lynch and letting Graham go one on one with an undersized defender or double Graham and take their chances at beating Lynch with even numbers. And that still doesn't account for the double-edged blade of Wilson out of play-action/read-option. With a single penstroke, the Seahawks, already one of the most formidable rosters in recent league history, not only addressed a dire need but did so resoundingly.
Graham's prowess has implications outside the red zone as well. In any passing offense, especially one as generally raw and inexperienced as Seattle's has been, spacing is of supreme importance and is amplified when a high number of throws come off of a roll-out or an all out scramble. With someone that has the size and skill of Jimmy Graham, defenses are forced to account for him, freeing up the rest of the field for the other receivers and, often, eliminating one of the extra defenders that may be assigned to cover them. The mere presence of Jimmy Graham on the field takes defenses out of their comfort zone and makes it tougher for opponents to load up against the meat and potatoes of the Seahawks offense, namely the rushing game.
Oh, and he produces like crazy, too. In the four years since Graham became a regular starter, he has amassed 355 catches on 551 targets (64.4%) for 4,396 yards (12.4 YPC) and the aforementioned 46 TDs, all of which are in the upper echelon of NFL productivity. Yes, the Saints pass a shit ton and there's no denying the voluminous impact it's had on Graham's stats but no one gets targeted 140 times a season simply as part of a system. No, a total that high is indicative of excellence and, even with opponents knowing Graham will average nearly nine targets per game, he is still producing at a per/opportunity level that rivals the game's best. He is the opposing defense's top priority in the passing game every week and still, he puts up staggering numbers. I would, of course, be remiss if I didn't mention the plantar fasciitis and shoulder injury that he has suffered over the past few seasons because their effect has been very real. And yet, even playing a lot of games at less than full strength, the sheer volume of his production tells no lies and he has still missed fewer games over the last two years (zero- with seven games on limited snap counts) than the player they traded to get him (13).
Now, players like Graham obviously don't come free and the bounty that Seattle paid included Pro Bowl center Max Unger and their first round pick in the upcoming draft. It is a considerable price to be sure, but such is the cost of filling an empty cup with vintage single malt instead of water or flat soda. So let's take a minute and look at what Seattle is actually losing. First, the money:
The Seahawks will inherit much of Graham's superstar contract, though, unlike the trade for Percy Harvin two years ago, Seattle will not be forced to sign him to a newer, richer one. In fact, as OverTheCap.com reports, with New Orleans having already paid him a huge chunk of his salary, his cap hit for Seattle is just $8 million this year, a cost subsidized by the $3.4 million in relief they gain by trading Unger in addition to the expected money saved by not signing a first round pick. After accounting for the $2.2 million dead money that comes with Unger's departure, OverTheCap estimates Seattle's net salary loss at a palatable $6.4 million. With the salary cap increasing by ~$10 million per team this year, GM John Schneider said "Right now we're on course, we're on budget" and currently there is no reason to doubt him. But if you're still upset about the cost, keep in mind that they'll owe zero guaranteed money to their new toy after this season, allowing them to move on penalty free if it doesn't work out.
One of the other major concerns with this deal is the loss of All Pro center Max Unger. Unger has been a unifying force as the elder statesman on Seattle's offensive line and there's no question that he is a valuable asset. Seattle generally enjoys a more forthright push in the rushing game and more cohesive blocking in pass protection with him on the field, but how has that translated to overall performance?
Well, as you know, the Seahawks have been the best rushing team in the NFL over the last two years and they've done it despite missing Unger for the previously mentioned baker's dozen worth of those games. In those 13 contests, the Seahawks have gone 10-3, winning the final eight of them in a row. With Unger playing, Seattle has averaged 24.7 points per game, while seeing that number dip slightly to 22.6 without him. But, as Kenny pointed out to me, the Seahawks didn't have Jimmy Graham in any of those games either. And while there is no denying Unger's impact, he has been considerably more injury plagued than Graham of late and it's reasonable to assume his health will be at least as questionable over the next few seasons. I will miss him nonetheless.
The third side of this apparently triangular coin is Seattle's forgoing of a first round pick for the third consecutive year. And while all of those picks have carried the relative value of an early second rounder, those are still opportunities to acquire young talent at a potential discount with team control for the foreseeable future. The draft represents one of the most exciting points on the league calendar and is a source of great anticipation for fans of every team. No pick gets those fans as amped up as the first rounder and losing out on the opportunity to pick a player in the top 32 will carry varying degrees of disappointment with it. But, again, what are they losing?
As I said, draft picks are wonderful and hopeful and and a source of optimism but they are also unknown commodities at the NFL level. It remains to be seen if they have the skill, intelligence, and discipline necessary to translate collegiate success into NFL success. Every year the draft is littered with players whose careers become corpses in short order despite dripping with potential and talent. Until that player gets a decent sample size of real NFL action under their proverbial belt and see how they handle the speed and physicality and demands of the pro game, you just don't know how to project them moving forward. Jimmy Graham is the type of player you get down on your creaky patellas and pray that your first round draft pick turns into someday; he is the prize winning pheasant in the hand that's worth far more than the two sparrows in the bush.
The other objection I've heard to this trade is the perceived loss of identity that Seattle is bound to suffer as a result. Attempting to pin down something as nebulous as the "identity" of a constantly changing group of elite alpha athletes making variously exorbitant sums of money for performance that forever exceeds what you or I could do is pure speculation. Hell, that's all any of this is. NFL franchises tightly control the information and perception of their teams and even when players go off the cuff and opine publicly, those moments are still just single facets on complex, ever rotating prism. They are but a sliver of the entire pie, like the close angle interior shots that realtors post on house listings. You can make assumptions on what the rest of the house is like from a single photo of one corner of the living room but all you can say for sure is what that corner of the living room looks like. Unless you actually walk through the building, you can only speculate.
Maybe bringing in Graham ruffles some feathers. We'll never know unless a player or coach comes out and says it explicitly but in the likely absence of that happening, let's play with the idea that it does rankle some guys. So what? The 53 players that end up in that locker room next season are all grown ass men making grown ass money in exchange for on-field excellence. If one player making more money than them is a problem, that's on the dude not making the jack, not the dude who is. And sure, bringing in an "outsider" may rub some of Seattle's draftees the wrong way but it shouldn't and I doubt it will. The NFL, and Pete Carroll's territory within it, is a crucible of testosterone-slaked execution and those who rise to the top of that foaming cauldron are rewarded handsomely for it. It is also a hotly contested market wherein players are commodities whose services are bought, sold, and traded on the regular. My assumption is that everyone who signs an NFL contract is aware of the cold business edge that comes with a pro football career and if a player is inexplicably unaware, it would be silly for his team to acquiesce to the ignorance of that fact.
We all love Seattle's commitment to drafting and developing its own and I think we'd all love to see that continue. But what happens when drafting at a certain position consistently falls short? Look at the receiving options that the Seahawks have drafted in the Carroll / Schneider era:
*Undrafted free agent
In five years, PCJS has drafted or UDFA'd nine players, only two of which have shown anything resembling consistent NFL production, with the better of the two peddling his wares in Detroit, not Seattle. Maybe Richardson and Norwood produce some day but it's way too early to know for sure and neither of them were much more than serviceable as rookies. Plus, Richardson's knee is all tore up. And maybe Jermaine Kearse will develop into a consistent threat but even last year, his best as a pro, Pro Football Focus had him as the third least productive receiver in the NFL on a per opportunity basis. Chris Matthews stole our hearts in the Super Bowl but those four catches are his only four catches ever. As Danny so adequately put it,
Jimmy Graham is essentially a proven, projectable, bigger, stronger, (prob) faster version of the Chris Matthews we saw in the Super Bowl— Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls) March 11, 2015
Receiving options for Russell Wilson have become a glaring necessity precisely because the organization has struggled to draft and develop the type of talent that precludes the need for a guy like Jimmy Graham. So, again, it would be awesome if Seattle could bring along "in house" guys with the the same success at WR/TE as they have with the defense but their track record says otherwise and maybe they're just smart enough to recognize that.
Ultimately, football is fun. That's why we all started caring in the first place, right? I'm sure the details of the trade will be haggled and argued over in the comments section here and elsewhere and by all means, go nuts, but nobody wins or loses trades at the time they're executed. Determining whether this was a good move for Seattle will take time and a fair decision likely can't be made until a long ways into the future. Maybe the Seahawks did pay too much but damnit, put a bullet in me the day my favorite team adds a talent like Jimmy Graham in the midst of a bona fide championship window and I don't react with glee. And maybe this deal will be a bust, a la the Harvin trade, and if it is, those of you who disagree with me can rub it in my face all you want. But until then, man, I'm just going to enjoy the freaking ride.
Four years ago we were all hoping eight wins would be enough to take the division. Now we're debating whether adding an All Pro tight end will improve the Seahawks' chances of making it to a third straight Super Bowl. Never forget where we've come from or how blessed we are to be cheering for this team at this time. Onward and upward.
PS - We'll be shooting a special edition of the Cigar Thoughts podcast tonight and it will post here on the site tomorrow morning.