RENTON Darrell Bevell had an answer that may please the many -- millions? -- of you who want Jimmy Graham to get the ball more near the goal line this season.
And since Bevell is the Seahawks’ play caller, it may please Graham most of all.
Bevell was asked Friday after the huge, star tight end caught two touchdown passes from inside the defense’s 20-yard line in the fifth practice of training camp what the key will be to getting more production out of Graham in the red zone in 2017.
“Give him more opportunities,” Seattle’s offensive coordinator said.
That’s easier said than what’s been done through Graham’s first two seasons as a Seahawk.
Friday, Graham caught his first touchdown passes in the middle of the end zone. He simply turned in open space between reserve linebackers and safeties who aren’t exactly accustomed to shutting down 6-foot-7 tight ends, and used his body to ward off anyone who thought of challenging Russell Wilson’s pass.
His second score just wasn’t fair. Graham split out wide right, isolating him on a smaller defender near the goal line as the Seahawks envisioned two years ago when they traded Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans for the NFL’s most prolific pass-catching tight end. Backup safety Jordan Simone, all 5-11 of him, didn’t have a chance on Graham’s fade route. Wilson’s pass wasn’t even high, Graham caught it off his hip as he crossed the goal line.
So apparently had Graham been guarded by an undrafted first-year free agent from Arizona State last October in New Orleans, Wilson would have thrown to him on that final play in the loss to the Saints. He only looked at Jermaine Kearse outside right instead, before Wilson’s high throw forced the 6-1 Kearse out of the back of the end zone while making the catch on the game-ending incomplete pass. Game over. Seahawks loss.
Graham was so miffed with that game and likely that final sequence against his former team, when I joined Lousiana media members in following him the length of the field of his former Superdome home he didn’t say a word. He only stared ahead, with a stone-cold expression.
Graham punctuated both scores Friday with his leaping ball spikes that he did so much when he played for the Saints -- but not as much as envisioned in Seattle.
Last year at this time, Graham was completely grounded.
“To have to learn how to walk again, it’s humbling,” he said.
The NFL’s most prolific pass-catching tight end from 2012-14 was six months into recovering from tricky surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, the injury he got in November 2015 against Pittsburgh. That prematurely ended his debut season in Seattle after his trade from New Orleans.
Most medical experts consider the recovery from a torn patellar tendon and reconstruction to be more complicated than from more common torn knee ligaments. Some who have torn their patellar tendons, such as New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz (whom Graham consulted in 2016), have taken multiple years to get back to approaching their former selves.
How far back is Graham to his former self? Has Graham returned to being the weapon the Seahawks acquired from the Saints?
“He’s so much more of a complete player than maybe we thought he would even become, really,” coach Pete Carroll said. “So, he surprised us. He and Russell are really tuned in. They spend a lot of time together.”
Including working out this offseason together playing pitch and catch on fields in Southern California.
“They communicate beautifully,” Carroll said.
Yet so far the results of that link have been below what the Seahawks thought they would be getting after they traded for Graham. And now Graham can feel the urgency; he is entering the final year of his $40 million contract and can become a free agent after this season.
It’s not that he hasn’t been the 80- or 90-catch guy he was with Drew Brees and the Saints. He never was going to be that in Seattle’s offense. He’s gotten a fraction of the targets he got in New Orleans. And the Seahawks have run the ball the last two seasons with Graham 107 more times (904 total rushes in 2015-16) than New Orleans did its final two seasons with him and Brees together.
Seattle traded to get Graham specifically to fix its problems in the red zone. The season before the trade, the Seahawks ranked 20th in the NFL in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. That’s a rate of 51.5 percent.
But Graham is still lacking the requisite opportunities to truly make a difference around the goal line.
In 2015, when Graham played 11 games before suffering the knee injury, the Seahawks were 16th in red-zone TD scoring, at 55.6 percent. In 2016, they sank to 25th, scoring touchdowns just 47.6 percent of the time while inside the opponents’ 20.
Yes, even though Graham set Seahawks records for tight ends with 65 catches and 923 yards last season, Seattle’s offense was four percentage points worse in red-zone efficiency than in the 2014 season that prompted Seattle to trade for him.
Like Bevell said Friday, Seahawks simply haven’t used Graham enough near the goal line.
In 2015, Wilson was still seeking chemistry with his new tight end. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin shared the NFL lead with a Seahawks-record 14 touchdown catches. Marshawn Lynch was still the lead runner and team’s identity, just before his injuries and eventual retirement. And Graham was not used to breaking off his routes to match Wilson’s improvisational scrambles.
So Seattle targeted Graham in the red zone nine times in 11 games in 2015, netting three receptions, one touchdown (of 1 yard, in his first Seahawks game, at St. Louis in September 2015) and one interception. Wilson had a passer rating of 39.8 when targeting Graham inside the 20 that season. Graham’s two touchdown catches overall that year were a career low.
Familiarity in year two, 2016, should have spawned red-zone success. But Graham’s rehabilitation from surgery lasted into September. Wilson didn’t throw to him in the red zone until the third game, against San Francisco.
Graham’s “crazy special, two-touchdown night against Buffalo Nov. 7, when he twice caught passes one-handed in the end zone while a defender was holding his other arm, showed what a weapon Graham is near the goal line. But those two TDs against the Bills were twice as many red-zone scores as Graham had in the final seven games of 2016.
Bevell said Wilson is still learning the mammoth Graham’s “catch radius” and whether he truly is covered or not.
At 6-7 and 265, Graham believe he’s never truly covered. And most times, he’s not. How many 6-7, 265-pound cover guys are there in the league? The answer is fewer than one.
But Wilson has a inherent aversion to throwing passes to covered receivers. It’s why Carroll has loved his QB since he made Wilson’s Seattle starter in week one of his rookie year of 2012. The such a preacher of “protecting the ball” at all costs, Seahawks rookies are reciting it by their first NFL minicamp
But the two touchdown passes against Buffalo last season showed Wilson what can happen when he just throws the ball up to Graham at the goal line. Often, as Brees learned in New Orleans. Graham has 59 touchdown catches: 51 in five seasons with the Saints, eight in two seasons with the Seahawks.
“It’s a learning process for Russ, for Jimmy, and the plays, and the things like how he fits into those plays,” Bevell said. “So it’s a learning process there. It’s great to see him, Russ, give him a couple of opportunities to make some catches and learn the body language, the catch radius, all of those things. And that’s not to say we haven’t had that, but there’s always levels that you can take it to. I think you saw the two plays (Friday) that he had where you’re able to see that.”
Here’s another thing: Bevell is trying to keep many Seahawks happy with scoring chances.
He’s got Baldwin, his $46 million wide receiver, flipping him off when he calls a trick play throwback pass by Baldwin to Wilson for a touchdown. That happened, last season in the home win over Philadelphia.
“Yeah, I mean, we’re using everybody. Can you say ‘effectively?’” Bevell said. “I mean, if you’re a fantasy guy, you’re probably not really excited about what was happening. He’s in there. We’re working to get him the ball. Can we be better at it? Yes. That is absolutely what we’re trying to do. We want to make him a big part of things. But there’s one ball.
“I mean, Doug wants to be a part of things. And I could go on and on down the list of guys that want to be involved. And we’re trying to get them all there.”
What else I saw in Friday’s practice:
▪ OFFENSIVE LINE DU JOUR: Another day, another starting set along the offensive line.
Friday it was rookie second-round draft pick Ethan Pocic as the right tackle for the entire practice. That was because Germain Ifedi did not practice but just watched wearing a blue hoodie one day after teammate Frank Clark decked him with a sucker punch during a pass-rush drill.
Oday Aboushi again started out as the first-team right guard, but Mark Glowinski got the majority of team-scrimmage snaps there.
Luke Joeckel was the left guard. George Fant was back at left tackle a day after Joeckel was there. Justin Britt was the center again.
▪ LANE WATCHES: Jeremy Lane has been a standout this first week of training camp, seizing the early lead in the competition to be the starting right cornerback. But he watched practice on Friday. The team didn’t specify an injury, and Carroll isn’t scheduled to talk to the media again until Monday.
Wide receiver Kenny Lawler missed practice a day after he turned his ankle making a catch.
▪ DARKHORSE THAT SHINED: Rookie seventh-round pick Chris Carson continues to impress. He was known as and touted by Carroll this spring as a run-you-over running back. And the 5-11, 218-pound Carson is powerful. He looks something like former Seahawks back Ricky Watters in build. But Carson’s straight-line speed belies his size. He doesn’t run through holes as much as he makes a single cut and bolts.
Yes, there are lots of backs in a crowded competition for playing time and roster space, and we’ve mentioned here how second-year reserve Alex Collins looks faster this summer after losing about 10 pounds. But Carson is showing well so far.
“I mean, it’s a pretty long list of guys that are flashing at different times,” Bevell said. “I love that Thomas Rawls is back out here healthy. You can see it, he’s playing at a different speed than he ever did last year when he was out there. You can see Alex has slimmed down and he’s looking really good. C.J. (Prosise), we fit in there. Eddie Lacy is out here; it’s cool to see him and how he can bounce off things and gain some extra yards. Chris Carson has looked good as well running the ball.
“So there’s a long list of guys and they’ve all had their moments.”