In my opinion, the biggest move of the Pete Carroll and John Schneider era was the trade acquisition of tight end Jimmy Graham. Coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and a loss to the New England Patriots in which things like “They have no red zone threat like Rob Gronkowski” were uttered constantly, the Seahawks gave up Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first round pick for Graham and a third round pick from the New Orleans Saints.
The NFL’s most successful team en total from 2012-2014, which had tried and failed to find a franchise tight end after signing Zach Miller and drafting the athletic Luke Willson, and whom were led in receiving yards by Doug Baldwin at 825 with second-place Jermaine Kearse only clocking in at 537, added a player with three Pro Bowls in the previous four years and 51 touchdowns in five seasons. The most touchdowns scored from 2012-2014: Marshawn Lynch at 43. The fourth-most: Graham, at 35.
How could it fail? Apparently by not knowing what you had or not knowing what you really wanted.
Graham’s inability to block anyone was and is well known, but on the day of the trade Carroll and Schneider focused on what he could do in the red zone as a “complementary” piece of the offense:
“In complementing the rest of our team, we think he’s just a fantastic target that we can implement in a number of ways,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “It’s pretty clear he’s a big receiver, plays big, makes plays in a crowd, makes plays on top of guys. He’s a very effective player in the red zone, he has been a terrific, consistent scorer, so all of that stuff, we’re just going to fit it into our offense and make him hopefully a very complementary part of it.”
It was a high price to pay for someone who only complements your offense, especially when you weaken the blocking at both center and tight end in a single move. And the reality seemed to be that even if Graham was only a “complementary” piece, Darrell Bevell still didn’t really ever find the groove of if he was a piece or the centerpiece to the offense. Nobody was happy when he received only two targets in his second game with the team, a 27-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. And it didn’t really seem to matter when he was the focus of the offense in a 27-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers in which he had 12 targets, eight catches, and 140 yards.
After Graham tore his patellar tendon and went on injured reserve, Russell Wilson went 109-of-158 for 1,301 yards, 16 touchdowns and one interception, with a rating of 125 and a Y/A of 8.23. Wilson was hot with Graham too, but maintaining that same level of heat without him put a stamp on the note that says, “Jimmy Graham doesn’t matter.”
That’s not to say that Graham isn’t a good player or the right player for the right team, but his lack of meshing with a Pete Carroll offense in Seattle made the move all the more confusing and could imply that not all in the front office are always on the same page. “Add a Pro Bowl tight end to the NFL’s best team and they need a red zone threat” makes the most sense in the world, but “Add a blocking liability to an offense with a head coach who has said since day one that he wants to run the football more than any team in the league” is a head-scratcher.
Carroll even admitted that they knew Graham couldn’t block when they acquired him: during a 2017 offseason “We swear, this is improved” type quotable moment, which come on we all knew wasn’t true, Carroll says that Graham had become a much more complete football player that year:
“He’s become such a complete football player,” Carroll praised. “He had a very good year in advancing his blocking skills and the demands we placed on him. You can just tell his confidence level is in the clouds. He knows he can block big guys and backers and DBs. He has no hesitation. He’s totally grown in that area. He’s so much more of a complete player than we thought he would even become.”
Graham’s 2016 season seemed to be his most effective, but he was perhaps most effective everywhere but the red zone, where he caught six of 17 targets for four touchdowns. Want to add Graham so that you have a big threat to throw to when you’re at the 1-yard line hint hint? Graham received three targets inside the opponents’ 10-yard line and he caught one of them, which was a touchdown.
In 2015, those numbers were three of eight in the red zone and two of four inside the 10.
Now compare that to Doug Baldwin, who is rarely mentioned as a “red zone threat” because we spend all of our time believing — as Carroll and Schneider clearly do — that bigger is better if you’re inside the 10:
Baldwin caught 9 of 15 red zone targets for six touchdowns in 2015 and two of five for two touchdowns inside the 10. In 2016, he caught 11 of 15 red zone targets for six touchdowns and four of seven inside the 10 with three scores. Over that two year span since acquiring Graham, Graham caught nine of 25 red zone targets with five touchdowns, while Baldwin caught 20 of 30 for 12 touchdowns.
Did Graham’s presence alter Baldwin’s ability to be open or to make those scores? I can’t say without going over each play, but in general we still know this: Graham was absent when Baldwin caught eight touchdowns in a four-game span in 2015, Graham still only caught nine of 25 targets himself which is very bad for a player you acquired to do red zone things, and Baldwin is still doing it.
He’s caught 5 of 11 red zone targets this year with three touchdowns and he’s been injured for most of the year. Graham has caught three of eight with the Packers for two touchdowns. He’s only one of five inside the opponents’ 10.
What Baldwin does have this season that he didn’t in the previous three is a combination of tight ends who are both adept at blocking and capable of providing production in the passing game as receivers. This is probably thanks to a combination of things: the addition of Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator, the addition of Mike Solari as offensive line coach, Russell Wilson being one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, tight ends coach Pat McPherson because why not shout out the TE coach in a TE article, and of course the offseason moves to acquire Ed Dickson and Will Dissly.
Who unfortunately never got to play together but who have picked up the slack in the absence of the other.
Last season, Graham caught 57 of 96 targets for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 5.42 Y/Target was the ninth-worst in the NFL for any player with at least 50 targets, and four of the players who were worse than him are running backs. Only Zay Jones, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Cole Beasley, and Corey Coleman were worse at WR or TE.
On the road last season, Graham averaged only 4.55 Y/Target. In the all-important NFC West games, he averaged 4.21 Y/Target.
But finally there was the red zone “complement” we were promised. Wilson went to Graham 24 times in the red zone and he caught 15 of them for 10 touchdowns. Inside the 10, he had 16 targets, eight catches, all of which went for scores. It came in handy in the shootout against the Houston Texans, in which two scores gave Seattle the lead when they were trailing, both in the fourth quarter.
However, what we’re seeing in 2018 is that Wilson doesn’t need Graham in order to score touchdowns. Not in the red zone, not anywhere on the field. With one more touchdown, Wilson will break his own single-season record and he’ll do it having potentially thrown a career-low in interceptions with a career-high in sacks taken.
And it’s with a group of tight ends that cost a total of $3.2 million, 5th-cheapest in the NFL. Graham is the league’s highest-paid tight end at $10 million annually.
Graham’s catch rate in 2017: 59.4%. The Seahawks’ tight ends catch rate in 2018: 71% with 8.44 yards per target.
Russell Wilson to Tight Ends this season (including Fant): 49-of-69, 583 yards, 8 TDs— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) December 27, 2018
This is better than what they were doing with Jimmy Graham, and they can block.
The lead man is Nick Vannett, Seattle’s third round pick in 2016. Thanks to injuries to the other two, Vannett has received the most snaps and 40 targets, catching 27 for 252 yards and three touchdowns. He has caught four of five targets in the red zone, with two going for scores. Both of those touchdowns came on targets inside the 10.
Whereas Graham is 22nd in DYAR and 25th among tight ends in DVOA in Green Bay, Vannett isn’t far behind at 30th in each.
Dickson returned to the team in Week 8 after starting the season on NFI and he’s gained more snaps over Vannett as the year goes on. Against the Kansas City Chiefs, Dickson had 64 snaps compared to 33 for Vannett. It was a similar ratio the week prior against the San Francisco 49ers. Renowned for his blocking, Dickson too has had some pretty poor Y/Target times in his career (5.93 with the Baltimore Ravens in 2011), but the Seahawks are putting him in position to succeed when he does get a target.
He’s caught 12 of 13 for 143 yards and three touchdowns. He’s had four red zone targets, catching three, with two touchdowns. Dickson hasn’t had enough qualified targets yet, but his DYAR would rank 13th and his DVOA would rank first by a significant margin.
And Will Dissly, the team’s fourth round pick this year, was Seattle’s star during their 0-2 start, catching six of 10 targets for 147 yards and two touchdowns. He caught just one of three for four yards in Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys, then like Graham before him, tore his patellar tendon in Week 4. Dissly caught both of his red zone targets, both of which were touchdowns.
Add it up: Wilson has targeted his tight ends 11 times in the red zone and they’ve caught nine of them, scoring six times. And they can block. And it costs the Seahawks $3.2 million.
(The other two tight end targets: One to George Fant for nine yards and one to Tyrone Swoopes for 23.)
In addition to that, Jaron Brown has caught six of six red zone targets with five touchdowns and Tyler Lockett has caught five of six for three touchdowns.
Certainly there’s also some contribution there to the run game, which has gone from 23rd in DVOA in 2017 to eighth this season. “Jimmy Graham’s on the field” was a pretty big tell in 2015-2017 that they were going to pass it and not ask Graham to block anyone. “Ed Dickson or Nick Vannett is on the field” is not. Maybe that’s a reason why RPO is pretty much only Run-In-Shotgun now because there doesn’t have to be as much deception before and just after the ball is snapped. “Yeah, we are going to give it to Chris Carson and run him behind George Fant, we believe in that.”
Even if you don’t, Carroll does, and it seems to be so much more in line with who he’s been as a coach for most of his career.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s looking down the barrel at something new in his career: With a red zone touchdown on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals he’ll be at 22 for the season, a new career high. Maybe he’ll target a tight end.
Maybe he doesn’t need to.