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Max Unger Flying Under Radar as Real Star of Blockbuster Trade

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMarch 11, 2015

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: Center Max Unger #60 of the Seattle Seahawks warms up before the game against the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Rare are the times when an afterthought in a blockbuster NFL trade is actually a two-time Pro Bowler and recent first-team All-Pro. 

Yet this appears to be the case in the swap the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints executed on Tuesday, which was headlined by tight end Jimmy Graham and only co-starred center Max Unger.

Little did we know, the real target of the initial trade discussions wasn't Graham. It was actually Unger. 

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, acquiring Unger was the primary objective for Saints head coach Sean Payton. From there, the shocking deal developed: The Saints would send Graham and a fourth-round pick to Seattle, while Unger and the Seahawks' first-round pick would go to New Orleans. 

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

Wondered how the #Saints/#Seahawks trade began. Interestingly, the original target was C Max Unger. That’s who Sean Payton wanted above all

The deal has been widely praised for Seattle—and for good reason. A team searching for a game-breaking tight end found one of the NFL's best, giving quarterback Russell Wilson the kind of multidimensional target he's lacked in the passing game. 

Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman liked the deal so much for Seattle that he now believes the Seahawks have a legitimate chance to go undefeated next season. 

But let's not forget the Saints just acquired one of the best interior offensive linemen in football. 

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Behind every Beast Mode run over the last five years has been Unger, the unquestioned anchor to Seattle's line. Now in New Orleans, he'll help spearhead an offense that clearly wants to shift to running the football with recently re-signed running back Mark Ingram. 

Unger brings an impressive track record to the Big Easy. 

He made the Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro in 2012, and he received a second invite to Hawaii a year later. A third invite was on its way last season, but foot, knee and ankle injuries limited him to just six games after an impressive start.  

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 09: Center Max Unger #60 of the Seattle Seahawks warms up before the game against the New York Giants at CenturyLink Field on November 9, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Centering the Impact: Max Unger, 2012-14
SnapsRun-Blocking GradeSacks Allowed
20121,013+24.3 (3rd in NFL)0
2013778+3.1 (19th)3
2014385+14.0 (4th)0
Source: Pro Football Focus

According to Pro Football Focus, Unger still graded out as the league's fourth-best center in 2014, despite playing only 385 snaps. His run-blocking grade was also the fourth best, and he did not allow any sacks or quarterback hits. 

In fact, Unger has given up just three sacks over the last three seasons combined. 

His impact in Seattle became obvious last season when he missed 10 games. As noted by Brian Nemhauser of Hawk Blogger, the Seahawks averaged 28.0 points in games with Unger on the field and just 21.7 without him. Seattle converted less in the red zone, averaged fewer yards per game and per play, and saw a significant dip in rushing outputs without its starting center.

While Graham's arrival is filling a big hole in Seattle, Unger leaving is creating an equally sized crater behind. 

Like Wilson, Saints quarterback Drew Brees will appreciate having an All-Pro making calls and stabilizing the line at the center position.

Expect Payton and the offense to lean more on Unger's road-grading abilities in the run game. 

New Orleans is clearly entering a transitional period, with Brees being 36 years old, veteran receiver Marques Colston entering the twilight of his career and Graham now in Seattle. The Saints will always want to throw the football with Brees and Payton together, but the running game appears to be taking on a greater significance. 

The shift in philosophy makes sense on two fronts. 

For one, the Saints can run the football to ease the enormous weight on Brees' shoulders every Sunday. He has attempted at least 650 passes for five straight seasons. 

Brees is also deadly efficient off play action. According to PFF, Brees completed almost 72 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions when using a run fake in 2014. His passer rating was 122.8, second only to Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers

The run can also help mask a defense that remains a work in progress. The Dallas Cowboys showed last season how a strong offensive line and a productive running game can protect a defense over the long haul. It's possible Payton saw the change in Dallas and decided a similar remedy would help his team. 

The commitment to Ingram was especially telling. Fresh off a career season but entering a dull market, Ingram agreed to a four-year deal before the start of free agency to stay with the Saints. According to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, the contract has a total value of $16 million, with $7.6 million guaranteed. 

While not a huge investment, the Saints clearly view Ingram as a core player on offense moving forward. 

Now, Ingram gets the opportunity to run behind arguably the top run-blocking center in the NFL. 

Unger will team up with left guard Ben Grubbs and right guard Jahri Evans to create a top interior trio. The three will be expected to pave the way on the ground and keep the interior of the pocket clean for Brees, who frequently creates passing lanes downfield by stepping up into the pocket. 

Payton, who targeted Unger from the get-go, clearly has a plan in place for how he wants his offense operating in 2015 and beyond. 

The NFL has not been historically known for these kinds of ground-breaking trades. Two teams swapping Pro Bowlers—just minutes before the start of free agency, no less—is almost unheard of. 

Graham is the big name, because he scores touchdowns and dunks the football over the goalpost. He's also a transcendent player at a position of growing importance in the pass-heavy professional game. There's no denying how great of a fit he is in Seattle. 

But don't sleep on Unger, the tough, gritty and accomplished center the Saints will now plug into the middle of their offensive line. When healthy, few at his position are better. And at only 28 years old, he has time to go to many more Pro Bowls while in New Orleans.  

The Saints traded away a really good player, but they also received a really good player. 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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