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Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham did his red zone damage against inferior competition

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham set to be a free agent in a couple weeks, Seattle fans are hotly debating the value of bringing Graham back versus letting him depart for more green in another pasture. One of the items that has been questioned is the attention paid to Graham defensively by other teams, and the level of competition against which his ten touchdowns in 2017 were scored.

Thus, let’s take a quick look at the ten touchdowns Graham scored this season to see how defenses were covering him in the red zone. Then we can also take a look at the plays inside the ten yard line on which passes to Graham went incomplete. This can give us just a bit of a sample regarding how much attention defenses paid to Graham close to the end zone this year.

In order to get right down to business here’s a table of who was covering Graham on each of his ten touchdowns.

How Jimmy Graham was covered on his 2017 touchdowns

Coverage by Position Experience
Coverage by Position Experience
Josh Johnson III S Rookie
Eli Apple CB 2nd Year
Uncovered FB Tre Madden drew coverage away N/A
Uncovered Split seam N/A
Tyvon Branch S 10th Year
Antoine Bethea S 11th Year
Devondre Campbell LB 2nd year
Akhello Witherspoon CB Rookie
Malcom Jenkins S 9th Year
Jourdan Lewis CB Rookie

So, Graham had one touchdown uncovered where the defense covered the ever dangerous receiving threat fullback Tre Madden (two receptions total in 2017) rather than Graham. In the same game in which he scored an uncovered touchdown, Graham caught a touchdown pass on a seam route where Russell Wilson hit him in stride between the underneath and over the top level against a cover-2, 5-under zone, and then he had eight touchdowns where he was covered one on one by a linebacker or a defensive back.

That means he had zero touchdowns against double coverage or bracket coverage, and he had zero touchdowns on plays where he was chipped at the line to disrupt his route. Of those eight touchdowns where he was covered one on one, three came against rookie cornerbacks, two came against second year defensive players and three came against safeties for whom 2017 was their age 30 season or greater (note: Malcolm Jenkins was 29 years old when he allowed a touchdown to Graham, as his birthday came seventeen days after the game).

Turning to the plays from inside the ten yard line which went for incompletions, we get the following:

Incomplete passes to Jimmy Graham in 2017 from inside opponent 10

Coverage By Position Experience
Coverage By Position Experience
Davon House CB 7th Year
Jayon Brown LB 2nd Year
Kevin Byard S 2nd Year
Eli Apple CB 2nd Year
Janoris Jenkins CB 6th Year
Kevin Johnson CB 3rd Year
Keanu Neal S 2nd Year
Uncovered chipped at line

Putting this information together with the data from Graham’s touchdowns, all Graham appears to have done in 2017 was basically be tall and catch jump balls when covered one on one. In addition, of the jump balls Graham caught in 2017, none were against players who would be considered to be in the prime years of 25 to 28 years of age.

Further, defenses did not appear to do much in terms of attempting anything special to stop Graham. Of the 15 plays in the sample where he was actually covered by a defender, on sixty percent of them he was covered by a rookie or a second year player. If defensive coordinators are trusting such inexperienced defensive players to cover Graham, where is the attention going when Seattle was threatening to score?

A quick re-review of Graham’s touchdown receptions reveals that on three of the eight touchdown catches where Graham was covered, Doug Baldwin was double covered. In addition, on the seam route on which Graham scored, the defender playing in the underneath layer closest to Graham watched Baldwin the entire play as Graham slipped right past. That means on four of Graham’s ten scoring plays the greater attention was being paid to Baldwin.

Further, both touchdowns Graham scored against the Arizona Cardinals came against six man rushes, with every receiver in the pattern being covered one on one. Similarly, Graham’s touchdown against the New York Giants came against a seven man rush, with all four receivers single covered. Add in the uncovered touchdown against Houston where Madden drew the attention of the defense, and that is eight of the touchdowns where Graham was not getting the most attention from the opposing defense.

That leaves only two more of Graham’s touchdowns, and interestingly, on both of those touchdowns the defense paid greater attention to the other tight end on the field. Against the Philadelphia Eagles Nick Vannett held the safeties in the middle of the field with a seam route, and against the Atlanta Falcons Luke Willson did the same thing.

Therefore, I’m left to draw the conclusion that while Graham obviously made some tough catches on many of his scoring receptions this season, the plays largely came as a result of a combination of quality scheming by the offensive coordinator and proper recognition and execution by Russell. Graham’s touchdown production in the red zone should be largely replaceable with proper scheming and continued high level play by Wilson.

Hopefully Brian Schottenheimer and the rest of the new offensive coaching staff can continue to scheme in such a way in 2018 that Russell Wilson can continue to deliver in the red zone, regardless of who is on the receiving end of his passes.