Why Jimmy Graham Is the Gem of NFL New Year's 1st Week

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMarch 14, 2015

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Jimmy Graham is a rare talent, a tight end who creates matchup issues for opposing defenses all over the field because of his athleticism, length and ability to win at the point of attack.

That's why I loved the move head coach Pete Carroll, general manager John Schneider and the Seattle Seahawks made to trade for him. Go grab an impact player with a unique skill set and give your young quarterback a legit target.

It was a bold, aggressive move, and it didn't come without a price. In return for Graham (and the Saints' fourth-round pick), the Seahawks sent starting center Max Unger and their first-round pick (No. 31) to New Orleans.

Unger is a stud. There's no question about that. He's one of the top centers in the game. Seattle will have to find a replacement there. And draft picks have value in this league. Draft and develop, right? That's the goal of every team.

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 14:  Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints carries the ball during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 14, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

But that's what it takes for a team that lacks weapons in the passing game to land a difference-maker.

As good as they've been, the Seahawks needed that difference-maker. That's why it's worth the risk. If you want to pay Russell Wilson like a franchise quarterback and have him continue developing, you have to give him a player who can run the entire route tree from a variety of alignments and produce.

Think of Graham as a receiver inside of the numbers, removed from the core as a No. 1 or isolated on the back side of the formation to create those matchups while expanding the game plan up in Seattle. Let's start with Graham inside of the numbers and check out the route tree I drew up off the Saints' All-22 film.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Look at the middle-of-the-field concepts here from that No. 3 alignment (count outside-in) that puts stress on the defensive game plan. What's the matchup plan in this situation for the defense? Roll a safety down? Jam the tight end with a 'backer on the release? Graham can run the seam, shallow cross, stick-out, break on the 7 cut (corner) or take off on the wheel to expose both zone and man coverage.

And that's where we see his size/length (6'7", 265 lbs) come into play at the point of attack against defensive backs or linebackers who try to check him in coverage. Because of his speed up the field and athleticism, Graham can create separation on the break and then use his body to pin defenders at the catch.

He's the guy who shows up on 50-50 throws because he can climb the ladder and use his body control to adjust to the ball. It's a beautiful thing for a quarterback when the tight end can go make plays on contested throws.

However, the red zone might be the most important aspect of bringing Graham to Seattle because of the alignments offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can utilize to get him the football.

Check out the 3x1 "Dakota" formation (also called "X-Iso") with Graham aligned as the backside "X" receiver. This is the same look we see from the Patriots with Rob Gronkowski, the Chargers with Antonio Gates, etc. It forces opposing defenses to show their matchups at the snap.

The routes to play for? Slant or fade—every time.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This is trouble for defensive backs in coverage (both safeties and cornerbacks) from a technique standpoint. Do they play press or back off to give a cushion so they can track the fade? Proper technique in this situation is to take away the slant by alignment (inside shade) and react to the fade by driving to the hip of the receiver/tight end.

But the defensive back in coverage still has to finish versus Graham. And that's not easy to do when he high-points the ball on the fade or creates contact to gain separation on the slant.

This is an example with Graham matched up versus Browns cornerback Joe Haden in the "Dakota" alignment on the fade route.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Quarterback Drew Brees can identify the matchup in his pre-snap read (Haden in coverage) and quickly throw the one-step fade. Here, Haden fails to locate the ball, and Graham shows his athleticism as he climbs the ladder and adjusts to bring the pass in for six points.

This will be a major positive for Wilson and the Seahawks when they move the ball inside of the red zone. Find the matchup and force a corner or safety lined up on Graham to make a play.

From a game-plan standpoint, having Graham on the field does give the Seahawks options, and it also forces the defense to make a decision. Does a team bring nickel into the game to defend Graham? If so, does it have the numbers in the box to limit running back Marshawn Lynch or slow down Wilson in the zone-read scheme?

Graham isn't a dominant run-blocker, but the narratives I heard this week that he really struggles in the run game are overblown. He recorded a positive grade this season as a blocker, according to Pro Football Focus, and that will allow the Seahawks to run the ball out of Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB), Ace/12 (2WR-2TE-1RB) and even Regular/21 (2WR-1TE-2RB) personnel.

There were plenty of moves this past week in free agency with teams making trades, cuts and paying out new money to upgrade their squads for the 2015 NFL season. But when I take a step back and look at the one move that creates the biggest impact, the Seahawks' decision to trade for Graham is at the top of the list.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.