TRADE FALLOUT: Why the Saints sent Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Moments before the start of the new league year, the New Orleans Saints made a HUGE splash by sending All-Pro TE Jimmy Graham to the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks in exchange for their first round draft pick and center Max Unger.

This is obviously a massive deal, and it’s a tough pill to swallow for many Saints fans. In his last four seasons with the Saints, Graham has totaled 355 catches for 4,396 receiving yards and has scored 46 touchdowns. That’s an AVERAGE receiving line of 88 catches, 1,110 yards, and 11.5 touchdowns a season! Graham made the Pro Bowl in each of the last four years, and only Dez Bryant has more receiving TDs than Graham in that span.

Graham is a super star, an athletic freak, Drew Brees’ favorite target, and one of the most dynamic offensive weapons and mismatches in the league. Furthermore, the Saints are only one offseason removed from awarding him the most lucrative contract for a tight end in NFL history.

So it’s easy to see why the reaction from WHODAT Nation is along the lines of “WHAT THE F*** !?” 

I’m going to break down the reasoning behind the move from the Saints’ perspective in a bullet point fashion:

  • The following graph shows the total pressures allowed from the right guard, left guard and center positions in the past three seasons:

InteriorOLpressure

  • Clearly, the interior offensive line was a MAJOR weakness last season. The Saints shared my belief that the interior offensive line needed to be upgraded, and center Max Unger goes a long way into patching the unit’s holes.
  • NOTE: In my Protecting the Franchise column, I broke down the O-line’s deficiencies and detailed the importance of quality interior offensive line play for the Saints. If you want to make more sense of this trade and feel much better about it in the process, I’d strongly suggest reading it now.
  • Perhaps the team felt that the reason guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans struggled last season was because they had to account for inexperience (Tim Lelito) and ineffectiveness (Jon Goodwin) at center.
  • Don’t discount Max Unger as an ordinary center, either. He’s been one of the league’s best for quite some time.
  • Unger has only allowed 5 total sacks in his entire 6-year career* – None in 2014.
  • Unger actually had a HUGE impact on the Seahawks’ offensive success last season.
  • When I was game-logging Marshawn Lynch for next year’s fantasy football season (yes, I know it’s only March, and yes I am actually that nerdy), I discovered and calculated interesting splits worth mentioning here:
  • In 9 games WITH UNGER – Marshawn Lynch rushed 177 times for 892 RUYD and 9 RUTD (5.0 YPC).
  • In 10 games WITHOUT UNGER – Lynch’s rushing line was 166-735-6 (4.4 YPC).
  • Obviously fantasy stats don’t translate directly to NFL effectiveness, but that’s a pretty big difference in splits that at least partially explains the center’s impact on Lynch’s efficiency, and it’s based on a fairly even and large sample size.
  • Seahawks 2014 Regular Season offense in 9 games with Unger  … 10 games without Unger:
  • Total Yards of Offense –  392 … 365
  • Total Yards Per Play – 6.21 … 5.69
  • Pass Yards Per Game – 188 … 212
  • Pass Yards Per Play –  6.51 … 6.58
  • Total Sacks Allowed – 2.17  …  2.9
  • Rush Yards Per Game –  203 … 154
  • Rush Yards Per Attempt  –  5.97 … 4.81
  • Graham is a freak athlete, but I’ve always been of the opinion that Drew Brees is what makes him special
  • For instance, swap Graham with Rams’ TE Jared Cook (also very athletic); and I would argue that Cook with Brees throwing to him would outproduce Graham in St. Louis… fairly easily.
  • Graham has amassed great receiving statistics over the years, but he has not been able to stay healthy consistently, and it’s led to him wearing down toward the end of the recent seasons.
  • Take a look at how he faded down the stretch in 2013 and 2014:
  • 2013: In the first 8 games of 2013, Graham had FIVE 100-yard games and scored 10 TDs. In the last 10 games, he only reached 100 receiving yards once (none after week 12-18), and he never topped 6 catches in that span.
  • 2014: In the team’s final five games, Graham averaged 4 catches and a little over 40 yards per game, scoring one touchdown in that span.
  • The Saints lost $2.5 million in cap space as a result of the trade, but Max Unger’s contract is very team-friendly. It’s important to realize the way Mike Triplett put it best: the Saints don’t have a salary cap problem. They have a 7-9 problem. In other words, this was a football move just as much as it was a business move.
  • I would love it if the Saints used Seattle’s first round pick on TE Maxx Williams, and then he went on to post better numbers during his rookie year as a Saint than Graham does in Seattle next season.
  • After re-signing RB Mark Ingram to a 4-year, $16M contract, making it point to keep expensive guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans (for now) when it would have made a lot of sense (financially) to release them, and now trading the team’s best pass catcher for a strong center, it’s fairly clear the Saints want to be able to run the football.
  • IN NO WAY DOES THIS TRADE MEAN OR IMPLY THAT THE SAINTS ARE REBUILDING.
  • The team has long been seeking more balance in their offense.
  • Yet, in 2014 the Saints threw led the NFL in pass attempts despite the fact that Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Khiry Robinson combined to average 4.6 yards per carry (the league average is 4.2 YPC), also disregarding the offensive’s line inability to consistently protect Drew Brees. The Saints blockers graded out as far superior run blockers than pass protectors per PFF.
  • The Saints asked Drew Brees to do way too much last season, and perhaps this could be the first of many moves that allow the Saints to take some pressure off Brees (literally).
  • Additionally, more balance and focus on an effective running game would make for an easier transition to life without Brees, but that’s an unrelated side benefit, not the team’s main objective. The Saints’ primary goal is win a Super Bowl THIS season, not in the future.
  • Lastly, don’t forget that the Saints offense was dominant BEFORE the team acquired Jimmy Graham, too…
  • New Orleans ranked 1st, 4th, 4th, and 1st respectively in the four seasons prior to drafting Graham.
  • Additionally, the Saints won a Super Bowl without Jimmy Graham. Jeremy Shockey scored a touchdown in that win.
  • Lastly, I’ve always said that there are only 3 essential elements to win a Super Bowl in today’s NFL: 1) You have to have a good quarterback; 2) You have to be able to pressure the opposing quarterback; and 3) You have to protect your quarterback.
  • Notice there is no requirement for having a great tight end. This trade helps elements #1 and #3 directly, and extra cap space in the future can help the team acquire #2. By this logic, this trade helps, not hurts the Saints’ chances.

Jimmy Graham is a great football player. He’s the second best tight end in football, and his deadly combination of size and speed makes him one of the best offensive weapons in the game and a huge mismatch for defenses. He’s extremely important to the offense and I believe he earned and deserves every penny of the lucrative contract he received last offseason.

But Chris Mortenson reported that Jimmy Graham was a distraction in the locker room. He was supposedly still upset about not getting wide receiver pay.

And perhaps more importantly, and he apparently hated getting hit in practice.

Shocker.

Jimmy Graham has one tragic flaw in his game. As I’ve stated on this website for a few years, Graham plays soft relative to his size. Ironically, he was called out for this by Seahawks DE Michael Bennett prior last year’s playoff game against Seattle.

This weakness has never been more evident than in 2014. For as physically imposing as he is (6-foot-7, 260 pounds), Graham doesn’t always use his massive size to his advantage.

He needs to do a much better job attacking the ball by using his enormous frame to shield the defender, positioning his mammoth body between the defender and ball, to where only he has the opportunity to pluck the ball out of the air. He often runs behind jump-balls, waiting for and hoping the ball will soar over the defenders hands instead of stepping in front of the defensive back and attacking the ball at its highest point. He can also be seen with alligator arms (short-arming passes) on throws that can potentially lead to him getting hit. In short, Graham seems to avoid contact when the ball is in the air, and it often gives smaller defenders – who should be helpless – a chance to make a play on the ball.

Despite being a former collegiate basketball player, Graham needs to improve vastly on his ability to use his size to his advantage when boxing out or shielding defenders. Additionally, he needs to be less timid when attempting to catch passes over the middle, fearlessly ignoring any imminent contact (rather than avoiding it). To use a basketball analogy, Graham is that huge guy in pick-up games who would rather shoot outside jumpers and threes than post up inside. If Graham started using his body like savvy veterans like Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez have, he could take his game to another level.

To Graham’s credit, he appeared to be a much-improved blocker in 2014, and he shows zero hesitation to a punish a defender a mean stiff-arm when the ball is in his hands. It’s also certainly worth mentioning that Graham battled a shoulder injury for the second half of the season, which impaired his ability to physically dominate; however, the injury should not be used as an excuse to explain the aforementioned lone weakness in his game.

More accurately, the injury may have exasperated or added to a problem that existed beforehand. Graham was the focal point of the offense, and opponents knew this, implanting all sorts of double and bracket coverage to limit his effectiveness.

This was best illustrated in the games that mattered most. In the Saints’ two playoff games in 2013, Graham had a quiet 3 catches for 44 yards against the Eagles and was shut down entirely against the Seahawks, recording 1 catch for 8 yards. Based on the way I’ve seen Seattle utilize tight ends in the past, as well as talented WRs Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, I’d be surprised if Graham puts up near the numbers or comes close to being as big of a playmaker for the Seahawks as he was in New Orleans.

There’s no question Graham will be missed dearly, and New Orleans appreciates his amazing contributions over the years as a Saint. But this was a tough decision that could end up helping the Saints in the future.

In the mean time, it’s nice having solidified the offensive line, but the Saints could definitely use some upgrades in the pass catching department. Look for the Saints to add a bigger, more physical complement to Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills (either by way of WR or TE) this offseason. But first, it appears New Orleans wants to take care of some defensive holes.

* = Sacks allowed credited by Per ProFootball Focus. Unger is a 5-year veteran, he missed almost every game of his second season due to injury.


Categories: The WHODAT GUIDE

10 replies »

  1. Thank you.

  2. Great article! Being a former college FB player from back in the day… I’ve told my kids 18 yr old triplet’s for yr’s that Jimmy is soft. Super athlete, but not willing to punish the defense. He should be looking to block/hit every time the ball is snapped due to the miss match in physicality! Are you a full time writer, your analysis is business/fact like I really enjoyed your piece, Thanks!

    • Thank you, Jay. Graham does tend to avoid contact despite the physical edge. There’s always the chance the Seahawks can toughen him up, but we’ll see.

      And No, I do not get paid to write, but I appreciate the inquiry.

  3. Soft! Yes. There is one particular incident in 2014 that exemplifies this. Saints were playing the Falcons. Graham caught the ball on the 1 and two falcons defenders stood him up and kept from entering the goal. The defenders were defensive backs, less than 6 foot and both under 220 lbs. I was shocked that a man that size could not out muscle them. I look at Maxx Williams on you tube. He is awesome. Very good hands. Here is hoping we get him. Great article.

  4. I’ve argued that the main reason Brees was in so much trouble last year was because we had receivers who couldn’t get adequate separation, causing him to hold the ball too long. Any available data on pocket-time?

    • Yes, of course. I have exactly what you’re looking for regarding his pocket time in my PROTECTING THE FRANCHISE column, found on the home page or in the WHODAT GUIDE. There’s a tidbit on his average time in the pocket during his last three seasons, and how he had less time in 2014. Check it out!

  5. sir, you definitely know football and us fans do appreciate when someone like talks. Keep up the good work and let’s focus on many more saints wins, super bowl or not

  6. your chart on pressure seems to conflict with Brees’ career sacks total – I show 2012 – 26, 2013 – 37, and 2014 – 29.

    Can you please source your sack, pressure, hurries information