RENTON Russell Wilson likens Jimmy Graham to a unicorn.
“Jimmy’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s like a unicorn. There’s only so many of those guys you can find, that can do what he can do,” the Seahawks’ quarterback said with a chuckle of the star tight end.
“He’s pretty special, catching the football, making plays. ... Hopefully he can continue to be a Seahawk. I would love to continue his career here with him.”
I mean, unicorns are indeed hard to come by.
But so rare that one is worth retaining at perhaps $8-10 million per year, amid so many other issues for the Seahawks this season?
“We’ve talked to him,” coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday--meaning Graham, not a unicorn.
“We love Jimmy. And we’d love for him to be with us.”
That’s going to take some cash and commitment Seattle may not be able to afford, or prudently choose to pay.
Graham’s 10 touchdown catches in 2017 set a Seahawks record for a season and for a career; he has 18 in three seasons with Seattle, since his trade from New Orleans for Pro Bowl center Max Under and a first-round draft choice before the 2015 season. His 10 TDs this past season were tied with 2014 for his most since 2013 with the Saints, the season that got him his four-year, $40 million contract that is just expired.
But he was mostly a one-trick, um, pony this season.
He didn’t have a game of over 72 yards receiving--and it took his season high-tying seven catches to get that, at Tennessee in a loss Sept. 24. In different five games he had fewer than 10 yards, including zilch in the loss at Jacksonville. That chilly evening in north Florida Dec. 10 he drew Carroll’s criticism for not breaking back to challenge for Wilson’s throw on an out route thrown in front of him that became an interception. Graham compounded his lapse by needlessly shoving Jacksonville’s A.J. Bouye into a Seahawks teammate standing well out of bounds at the end of Bouye’s interception and return. That personal foul sent the Jaguars into Seattle territory to begin their touchdown drive to a 10-0 lead.
“Jimmy’s got to make that play, hopefully, for us, where it’s either him or nobody,” Carroll said Dec. 11 in what for the sunny coach was an unusually pointed, by-name critique of a player. “That’s kind of what we are counting on right there.”
Then Graham didn’t try much to reach back to the ball Wilson threw to him when he was wide open on the sideline at midfield on Seattle’s final series. That drive ended up fruitless in the 30-24 defeat.
One week after that, in the biggest game this past season, the pivotal one at home against the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West title on Dec. 17, the NFL’s most prolific receiving tight end when the Seahawks acquired him had one catch for minus-1 yard. Seattle lost 42-7 and went straight to the brink of playoff elimination.
Graham’s 520 yards receiving in 2017 were his lowest since his rookie season with New Orleans in 2010, when he started a career-low five games. His 57 catches this past season (in 96 targets, 59.4 percent) were the fewest receptions of his career while starting over a full season. It was his second-lowest of his career since his part-time rookie year, second only to his 48 in his Seattle debut year of 2015 that was shortened in November by a season-ending knee injury. His seven drops in 2017 were second-most in the league, one behind Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee.
Because his routes were so short Graham got first downs on only 56 percent of his catches. Sometimes, as in Sunday’s season-finale loss against Arizona, he caught the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage after he failed to pass block and a desperate Wilson dumped it him to avoid a sack.
Tuesday, in the coach’s earliest end-of-season press conference in six years, Carroll was asked how he evaluates Graham’s season.
“Well, I thought he had a big factor in the season,” Carroll said. “And the fact that he did score – and there was a stretch in there where he didn’t catch a (ball) and you all thought he was going to retire or something like that – but he did have a stretch there. And his stretch and Russell’s stretch was kind of the same; offensively our stretch was kind of the same.
“We were not on it there for two, three weeks in a row. We won the Dallas game without a whole lot of offense that day (the defense forced three turnovers to equal all 21 of Seattle’s points on Christmas Eve). We were efficient and we scored and did some things, but we just got into a funk there on what was going on. Jimmy was having a great season, and I think it’s that really – it was that span of time there that we weren’t on it.
“I thought that the chemistry was as visible as you can make it. We were forcing teams to double him down there, and if they don’t double him we’re going to be able to get it to him, and that’s what we had pictured it to be. It just took a while...
“He was as forcible as anybody in the NFL down there.”
Forcible and effective enough for the Seahawks to commit a large chunk of their 2018 salary-cap space to a 31-year-old tight end who after three seasons has yet to fully fit in the normal flow of the offense?
With all else the team has to do to get back to the playoffs after missing them for the first time in six seasons? Those include: get better running backs plus new offensive linemen and younger defensive linemen, find eventual if not immediate replacements for Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman in the secondary, get a new kicker that doesn’t miss eight field goals...
You get the picture.
Graham seemed to get it Monday.
The tight end has been tight lipped in his three years with the Seahawks, talking to the media only a few times and mostly only immediately after his couple huge games such as his two-touchdown night in 2016 against Buffalo...
On Monday, clean-out day in the Seahawks locker room after the season’s early end, Graham turned a corner and saw a horde of media members and cameras inside. He flashed a look of “I’m outta here”--then was. He U-turned from the room and soon was out of the facility, seemingly destined for somewhere else in free agency by March.
Graham will turn 32 during the 2018 season. The Seahawks’ choices with him:
1. Re-sign him to an extension that would need to be more team-friendly than his $10 million charge against Seattle’s salary cap this past season. Such a deal would have a large bonus of cash for him upfront with back-loaded salaries that would be easy for the Seahawks to cut in later years, when Graham approaches his mid-30s.
2. Let him at least shop in free agency. They could then re-sign him more on their teams, after he sees what he can or cannot get at his age and with his recent, alarming history of disappearances during seasons.
3. Let him leave. At 6 feet 7 he remains a tantalizing and at-times lethal receiving option near the goal line, one that still makes NFL play callers drool. Graham was second in the NFL in 2017 in receptions inside the 20-yard line (16), and second in catches inside the 10 (eight). Some team may on the often-frenzied, illogical free-agent market offer him $8-9 million per year. This option would net the Seahawks a third- or fourth-round draft choice, as compensation for losing an elite, unrestricted free agent. That would be a step to recoup one of the picks they traded away this past season in the trades to acquire left tackle Duane Brown from Houston and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the New York Jets.
4. Use their one-per-year exclusive franchise tag on Graham to keep him for the 2018 season. That would likely come at $11.88 million, a 120-percent raise from his $7.9 million salary and $2 million prorated bonus for this year.
Does Wilson believe his “unicorn” can fly back into the offense, that the Seahawks can produce a rainbow to bring him back for 2018 using option one or four above?
“I don’t know all those things, honestly,” the $87.6-million franchise QB said. “That’s over my pay grade.”