We’ve embarked on a series looking at free agents the Cincinnati Bengals should pursue on teams which sat out the 2017 playoffs. Next up: the Seattle Seahawks.
After reaching the playoffs every year from 2011-2015, the Cincinnati Bengals fell short of the postseason for the second year in a row. Now they await NFL Free Agency in 2018, which could be key for them getting back in the mix.
Entering the offseason, we started with a series that highlighted players from playoff teams that the Bengals could look at in free agency. Now, the focus has turned to the other teams that weren’t in the postseason.
We’ve previously taken a look at players from the Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Ravens, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We continue with the Seattle Seahawks.
Jimmy Graham, TE
Cincinnati’s offense under Andy Dalton has often been held back by the inherent limitations of their quarterback. Only once has the team been among the elite offenses in the league (No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ Offensive DVOA in 2015); only twice has the team even been above league average (No. 11 in Offensive DVOA in 2016).
Last season was perhaps the worst showing for the unit. They had their lowest showing in overall Offensive DVOA ever under Dalton (No. 22), and were below average across the board for all Offensive DVOA stats (No. 17 in Weighted Offensive DVOA, No. 21 in Offensive Passing DVOA, No. 20 in Offensive Rushing DVOA). In Football Outsiders’ Offensive Drive statistics, Cincinnati’s offense was No. 20 or worse in 12-of-18 of them.
A big part of this was because of what happened at tight end. The plan coming into 2017 was to have Cincinnati’s star tight end Tyler Eifert; alas, those hopes were quickly dashed as Eifert would yet again fall to a major injury within the first few weeks. Without their hulking target over the middle and in the red zone, the Cincinnati offense was left punch-less far too often, and it showed: only Chicago accumulated less yards per drive, and only the Jets had fewer plays per drive.
This offseason is a chance to make changes. Eifert is a great talent when healthy, but he almost never is. He has never been active for a full season of games, and only twice even been around for 10+ in a year. His 2015 was exactly what teams dream of at their tight end position (52 receptions, 615 yards, 13 touchdowns), but it is probably a pipe dream to think that production is more than a one-off showing for him now. Even if the talent remains, will he ever be on the field enough to utilize it?
I am not confident in his ability to do so, and as a free agent this is the time to allow him to leave. The team shouldn’t just leave all their hopes at the feet of their other Tyler (Kroft), though; they should aim high. Really high, as in the top of the free agency pile.
Graham is far from the star his days with Drew Brees made us believe he could be, but the fact that he has felt like a disappointment in Seattle needs to be taken with some context for the vast difference between the situations with the Saints and Seahawks. Changing from a high-flying, impeccably-planned offense to a grind-it-out, improvisational one really put a damper on Graham’s ceiling, but his skills would still manage to shine through in spurts. In an injury-shortened 2015, he had four games with 75+ receiving yards. Last year, he had five games with 5+ receptions and finished with 10 total touchdown catches.
In a new situation, though he probably will never reach his New Orleans heights again, he can make positive steps back towards it. At least, he should still be able to consistently reach the level of his 2016 self. That year, he was third among tight ends in total receiving yardage in what was easily his best stat-line with Seattle (65 receptions, 923 yards, six touchdowns).
Put that on Cincinnati, and this team alleviates so many of their problems. Their best Dalton-led offense was their 2015 version, and it was led by a star wideout on the outside paired with a great tight end in the middle. Green is still here, and Graham could be even better than what Eifert provided that season — and be a better long-term option in terms of consistency and availability. Those two will take pressure off each other, the offensive line, and all the other skill players just by lining up together; if those latter two areas also take a step forward (it’d be hard not to, based on the pitfalls 2017 brought the group), the offense has exciting potential.
Now this is where we talk about the biggest roadblock: price. Graham has the pedigree to get paid, and he (and his agent) surely realize he’s by far the best option on the open market. The contract he just finished already paid him the most per year of any tight end in the league; expecting him to go for anything less is a fool’s errand. All the players right below him signed for large value, but did so on extensions rather than on the open market; thus, they didn’t get all they could have. He will, and even at 31 it’d be surprising if he didn’t set the market in therms of total money and per year average.
Would Cincinnati do this? The smart money is on no, but there may be more of a chance than we think. Marvin Lewis almost didn’t return after last season; supposedly, a promise of better utilization of free agency is part of what kept Lewis around. Cincinnati enters 2018 with nearly $40 million in cap space; if you’re gonna spend it, might as well do so on high level talent, and even an aging Graham can be that sort of upgrade for the team.
Few players available can change the trajectory of an offensive attack, but Graham still can be that. If Bengals fans are lucky, maybe he’ll be doing so for Cincinnati in the near future.