The Seattle Seahawks were a better team when Jimmy Graham was off the field last season. How does the offense adjust in year two? Graham is no lock to win the starting job.
There are a ton of things to like about the Seattle Seahawks in the 2016 NFL season. Everyone is familiar with the big names on defense, led by the peerless secondary. On offense, even if Marshawn Lynch decides to stay retired, yards and points can be generated through the running game and through Russell Wilson‘s play-making ability.
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Seattle has always had underwhelming wide receivers. Doug Baldwin‘s heroics a year ago helped overcome this shortcoming. The position though that was supposed to pick up the slack of the receivers was tight end. Instead, it ended up being one of the major holes for this unit a season ago. The huge offseason acquisition of Jimmy Graham from New Orleans ended up being a dud. Graham seemed uncomfortable in the system and was not the type of game changer through the passing game that everyone expected him to be. He also finished the year on the sidelines after getting injured.
Graham finished fourth on the team with 48 catches, but only managed two touchdowns all season. The team also seemed to take off after Graham was removed from the lineup with his knee injury, going 4-1 in the final five games of the regular season.
Luke Willson was the man who replaced Graham in the lineup. He didn’t put up big numbers, but has been in this offense for a few years now and may simply be a more comfortable fit both with Russell and with the system in general. Graham has never been known as a good blocker on top of it all. He routinely split out wide with the Saints, never even approaching the offensive line. The Seahawks lined him up inside more, but it wasn’t a useful approach.
Willson is not a big name, nor does he have a big contract. But I really wonder, assuming Graham is even healthy Week one, should Seattle bench him for Willson in the starting lineup?
Last year, according to Football Outsiders, Graham was better than Willson in the passing game on a per-play basis, but the difference wasn’t as much as one would expect, and neither player ranked higher than 10th at the position. So if Graham didn’t have a huge edge in the only area he has the edge in, is Seattle better off with the experience, chemistry, blocking, etc. of Willson?
My answer is still no, since Graham probably offered more help to the passing game than his pure numbers indicated, including shifting defenses to aid Baldwin in the latter’s breakout campaign. But it’s an interesting discussion, despite the vast gully in name recognition between the two participants.
If Jimmy Graham were fully healthy and had a full offseason to work with Russell Wilson and the first team offense, then this would not be up for debate. Graham would get the starting nod, because his upside in the passing game is unparalleled. Learning where you fit in an offense takes time and I believe players can improve their blocking skills as well.
The reality is much more grey. When Graham went out with an injury last season the Seahawks lost a receiving threat, but gained back their reliable blocking tight end. I doubt Russell Wilson trusted Graham’s ability to consistently block, but he sure as hell trusts Willson’s ability to do so. The obvious answer is to have both players split time on offense. But doing so creates an equally difficult problem.
Using Graham in the passing game and Willson to block is an instant tell to opposing defenses. Willson can be utilized to block on both running and passing plays, but if he’s in the game the defense knows not to consider him a threat. They can double up on the other receivers or the running back. If Graham is in the game then defenses know he’s probably getting the football, or at least Seattle is about to throw it.
Since splitting time is not a viable option, the Seahawks must decide. I think you have to go with Graham for at least four games. Coincidence or not, Seattle has a bye in week five of the upcoming season. Graham presents such a mismatch in the passing game that a defense must adjust. He does in fact open things up for the other Seattle receivers and if a defense chooses to ignore him as a passing threat, then the Seahawks can simply feed Graham the football. He will shred you.
I’m giving the team four games to get comfortable and utilize Graham’s strengths. But if the offense still feels flat, if it isn’t operating with rhythm and Russell Wilson isn’t being protected on the edges, then Seattle will be forced to bring in their backup once again. Its basically a win win situation. Either Graham begins to assert himself, or the Seahawks use a player they already know and trust in the offense.