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Jimmy Graham injury: Should the Seahawks keep him as the highest-paid TE in the NFL?

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When news broke in March of 2015 that the New Orleans Saints were trading Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL community was stunned; Rarely do teams trade such high level players with significant salaries. Fan reactions were polarized. Some believed acquiring Graham for that price tag was a steal, some believe Seattle gave up too much draft capital, and some just felt plain uneasy. Drew Brees himself was speechless:

"I'm as shocked as everyone else. I love the guy."

Graham was one of the foundational pillars to the Saints offense and they knew his presence would surely be missed. At the time, he was widely considered one of the most lethal offensive threats in the league. In Graham's five seasons with New Orleans, he hauled in a ridiculous 51 touchdowns. Only three elite pass catchers hauled in more touchdowns than Graham in the same time period: Dez Bryant, Rob Gronkowski, and Calvin Johnson. Graham was a touchdown monster -- and the NFL feared his connection with Brees.

In the trade, Seattle ended up sending All-Pro center Max Unger and a 2015 first round pick to the Saints in exchange for Graham and a 4th round pick. Unger was a long time veteran of the franchise, as he was one of only three players to remain through the transition to the Pete Carroll era (Brandon Mebane and Jon Ryan were the other two). However, with the then-recent departure of Zach Miller only a week earlier, it was clear the Seahawks had a need at the tight end position. So in typical bold and splashy style, Seattle assumed the front-page headlines and made the trade.

Back in July of 2014, after a lengthy lawsuit with the team regarding his positional identification, Graham signed a four-year, $40M extension with the Saints. The full guarantee of Graham's deal at signage was $13M -€” 32.5% of his total deal. Of the top five highest-paid tight ends in the league, Graham has the second highest percentage of full guarantees in his contract. In terms of APY (average per year), the deal pays Jimmy Graham $10M annually -€” making him currently the highest paid tight end in the NFL by APY. However, it's important to note that when Seattle traded for Graham, New Orleans had already paid his signing bonus of $12M on his contract. Thus, they were not on the hook for that money. Graham's cap hits for the Seahawks would be significantly higher if they were forced to pay that signing bonus money (it would have been spread out over the cap). In 2016, Graham's salary will bring a $9M cap hit on Seattle. In 2017, that number jumps up to $10M. These numbers -- quite large for any player who isn't a QB -- are critical to understand when objectively weighing the Seahawks roster balance.

Before we make any judgments whatsoever, let's get several things straight. Personally, I love Jimmy Graham. I love him as a player and as an individual off the field. He's an incredible athlete with a unique talent for the game of football. I think he's a person of high character and Seattle is lucky to have him. There is no one in the world that doubts Graham's talent, his capabilities, and his potential production. In this article, we're attempting to answer one, very specific question: Does Graham's role on the Seahawks justify his cap hit? A player's role does not always maximize his talent. We're talking about his role on this team. Does Graham's current role in Seattle justify his league-high cap hit? From a football wide perspective, attempting to answer this question must involve contractual analysis.

Many have speculated about Graham's future with the team. John Schneider, the general manager for the Seahawks, addressed this speculation last January:

"I understand why people would say that based on the salary and what some people have ... people on the outside may perceive as a lack of production. But really, truly, the guy is a special player. We gave up a No. 1 draft choice for him. He's a great guy. He's going through a lot right now with his rehab, and he did nothing but give it his best since he came here."

Reading in between the lines (and these are my own thoughts), I interpret this as:

"Look...we gave up a lot of draft capital for him. We're still figuring out how to use him. Give us some time. We're not going to give up on a player of his caliber that easily."

Maybe I'm right. Maybe I'm wrong. As we all know, Graham tore his patellar tendon in a Week 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was quickly ruled out for the rest of the season. In 11 games with Seattle (Hawks had a bye in Week 9), Graham caught 48 balls for 605 yards and two touchdowns. At the time, Graham was the second leading receiver for the Seahawks -€” behind only Doug Baldwin. Before the injury, the relationship between Wilson and Graham was just starting to mature. The connection was growing: Russell was starting to hit Graham in stride, Graham was starting to get consistently open, and production was becoming more evident. Carroll noticed it too:

"Yeah, I don't think there's any question. You can see it," Carroll said. "You can see these guys working together, and they're really fine-tuning on throws and spots that they're throwing too and all that. I think we're going to continue to see them go and get better."

Before joining the Seahawks, Graham was widely known as one of the most lethal red zone threats in the NFL. It was quite obvious that Seattle acquired Graham primarily to fix their red zone struggles. They had struggled mightily in the red zone in 2014, as they didn't have a receiver who possessed the physicality to go up for a jump and grab. As a result, teams just stacked the box around Marshawn Lynch.

However, Graham had just two touchdowns through 11 games. Something is wrong if he's only hauled in two touchdowns. However, I think it's probably unreasonable to expect an immediate Brees-like relationship with Graham from Russell; Brees had benefitted from five years to develop that football relationship. Let's look a look at how the two relationships compare statistically.

Year

Games Started

Completions

Attempts

Comp. %

Yards

Touchdowns

INTs

Passer Rating

Russ to Graham (2015)

11

48

74

64.9%

605

2

1

93.5

Brees to Graham (2014)

13

85

124

68.5%

889

10

3

105.8

To me, the yards weren't a concern. The touchdown pace was. Now, let's assume Graham didn't experience an injury in either years. Let's see what his pace would have been for both years.

Year

Games Started

Completions

Attempts

Comp. %

Yards

Touchdowns

INTs

Passer Rating

Russ to Graham (2015)

16

70

108

64.9%

880

2.88

1.44

93.5

Brees to Graham (2014)

16

104

152

68.5%

1094

12.30

3.70

105.8

Graham's three-touchdown pace in 2015 would rank him 20th in the NFL among tight ends. That is something to consider when analyzing his production versus his cap hits. It's clear, based on Graham's past production, that he possesses the talent and capability to be one of the NFL's most productive tight ends. He sure was in New Orleans. However, we must factor in his recent injury. Will he have the same potential as the "old Jimmy Graham"? Will his explosiveness be there? Honestly, nobody will know the answer to these questions till we see him play. However, David Chao, a respected former NFL team doctor, appears skeptical of Graham's ability to be 100-percent by Week 1:

So let's recap what we've learned:

  • Graham is currently the highest paid tight end in the NFL (APY)
  • Graham's cap hit in 2016 is $9M and $10M in 2017
  • His touchdown pace in 2015 was concerning
  • Many believe he won't be back 100% by week one

My take on things:

Graham has proven that he can be one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL when everything is going right. He can haul in touchdowns, catch inaccurately thrown balls, and use his body to out-physical corners and safeties. With that said, his 2015 touchdown pace was concerning.

However, considering the rather healthy state of the Seahawks salary cap and the growth we saw between Wilson and Graham before the injury, I believe cutting Graham before the 2016 season would be unwise. Seattle is not so strapped for cash right now and can easily afford $9M to see if their star tight end can return healthy and effective. If Russell and Graham can build off their growth in the 2015 season, they may become one of the most lethal offensive duos in the league. If Graham does not return healthy and is unable to further solidify his relationship with Russell, the Seahawks can ask Graham to take a pay cut in 2017 or flat out cut him. So to answer the question: Does Graham's role on the team justify his $9M cap hit? With the information we have, probably yes. This will be a massive season for Graham's career. Will he return to being the touchdown monster every defensive coordinator fears or is a combination of a busted knee and a bad offensive fit come to haunt him and the Seahawks once again?

We'll know in a few short months. As of now, it's worth the wait.