Will Run-1st Scheme Stop Jimmy Graham from Being the NFL's Top Pass-Catching TE?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJune 11, 2015

AP Images

The Seattle Seahawks lost Super Bowl XLIX when their offense fell agonizingly short of the game-winning touchdown.

Having relied on star tailback Marshawn Lynch and star quarterback Russell Wilson to generate nearly all of the scoring during their back-to-back NFC title runs, the Seahawks had to add a credible pass-catching weapon this offseason.

That box was emphatically checked when they traded for tight end Jimmy Graham, a human mismatch who boasts three Pro Bowl nods and a first-team All-Pro nomination in the last four years. Graham was such an effective downfield weapon and vital all-over-the-field target for the New Orleans Saints he asked an arbitrator to rule him a wide receiver.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

In Seattle, there won't be any question about Graham's role: He's a tight end—and the Seahawks will ask him to do a lot of blocking for Lynch.

"Personally, I’m excited to block," Graham told Pro Football Talk's Curtis Crabtree. "I'm 270 pounds. I can block anybody I want to. It’s all about want-to."

The 6'7" Graham is right: A football player that big and athletic who wants to block well will do just fine. But the Seahawks didn't trade for Graham to improve their blocking—they acquired him to catch balls and score points. Will he be able to make an impact without lining up all over the field?

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Graham is, first and foremost, a pass-catcher. According to Pro Football Focus, of the 67 tight ends who played in at least 25 percent of their teams' 2014 snaps, Graham ran receiving routes more frequently than all but two:

NFL Tight End Pass-Route Use Rate, 2014
RankNameTeamSnapsRoute Rate
1 Timothy WrightNE35770.31%
2 Antonio GatesSD78766.71%
3 Jimmy GrahamNO79066.20%
4 Zach ErtzPHI60365.84%
5 Jordan ReedWAS37765.25%
43 Luke WillsonSEA57940.59%
Pro Football Focus

Graham wasn't just out there running around as a decoy, either, despite battling through injuries much of the year; his target rate of 23.1 percent was also third-best in the NFL.

Included in that table for reference: Luke Willson, the Seahawks' only qualifying tight end and only inside receiving threat. He went out for a pass on 40.6 percent of the snaps he saw, ranking 43rd out of 67. As much as Wilson came to rely on his only big target for big plays in January, the Seahawks just didn't use tight ends much.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Of the six tight ends who got on the field for Seattle, the team split reps primarily among Willson (579), Cooper Helfet (249), Tony Moeaki (206) and injured starter Zach Miller (160). The Seahawks used all four the way Willson was, running routes on between 38 and 46 percent of their snaps. 

The Saints, of course, are notoriously pass-happy. They finished second in pass attempts in 2014, per Pro Football Reference, and used their tight ends far more than the Seahawks did. Let's take a look at how the two teams compare in passing frequency and tight end use:

Credit: Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

The Seahawks passed less often than any other NFL team, throwing on just 44.5 percent of their plays. Their "TE Rep Rate" of 118.4 percent means that on average, they put 1.18 tight ends on the field for each offensive play. Meanwhile, the Saints averaged a whopping 1.52 tight ends on the field per snap, indicating heavy use of two-tight end sets.

Saints tight ends went out for passes more often than Seahawks tight ends did—but by a much smaller margin than expected, given the difference in pass rates. This suggests the Saints did much of their running with two tight ends on the field. Graham went out for a pass on 80.0 percent of Brees' 654 attempts.

So what happens when Graham becomes the feature tight end in Seattle?

Let's assume the Seahawks run as many plays this year as they did last year (1,021) and maintain their typical run/pass balance of the Marshawn Lynch era—which means Wilson will again put 452 balls in the air.

Even if Graham's on the field as often as he was in New Orleans and thrown to as frequently, he'll see a big drop from 121 targets to 83. Even if he catches the ball as often and does as much with each catch, his stats will take a shocking plunge:

Credit: Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

This "middle"-case scenario drops Graham out of the NFL's top five tight ends. His projected 59 catches for 612 yards and seven touchdowns even drops him out of the top 10—into Larry Donnell territory.

The best-case scenario for Graham, in Seahawks green, assumes Wilson throws a career-high 500 times, and Graham runs a route on 80 percent of those attempts and matches his career highs in target rate (26.9 percent), catch rate (70.2 percent) and yards per reception (14.1).

It's reasonable to assume the Seahawks will change their offense to accommodate Graham, but it's wildly unlikely he plays the best ball of his life. At least, though, it's possible Graham puts up gonzo numbers this year.

The worst-case scenario assumes Wilson throws a career-average 417 times, and Graham runs a route on 45 percent of those attempts (typical for a 2014 Seattle tight end) and matches his career lows in target rate (23.1 percent), catch rate (63.2 percent) and yards per reception (10.5). So if the Seahawks use Graham like they used Willson, he'll put up similar numbers.

2014 Jimmy Graham stats vs. 2015 Projections
NO Jimmy Graham12185889
SEAJimmy Graham (middle)8359612
SEAJimmy Graham (best)108761072
SEAJimmy Graham (worst)4327288
Pro Football Focus

The most likely reality, of course, is something close to the middle: The Seahawks all but certainly won't be platooning Graham and will send him out on routes more frequently than they would any other tight end.

Yet, unless Wilson tries to force-feed it to Graham like Mike Tice did Randy Mossand Graham plays the best football of his life in his first season away from Sean Payton and Drew Brees, elite numbers aren't happening.

Graham's presence may dramatically reshape the Seahawks offense, open up lanes for Lynch, draw coverage away from the receivers and make Wilson a more dangerous quarterback. Even if the Seahawks have a far more effective offense, though, it will be all but impossible for Graham to put up All-Pro numbers in Seattle.

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