John McGrath

John McGrath: Seahawks get better by leaps and bounds with TE Jimmy Graham

The first day of the NFL’s free-agent hunting season began with the usually brash Seattle Seahawks appearing to be docile participants in the annual dash to bag a prize or three.

At Seahawks headquarters in Renton, all was quiet — almost too quiet, as the sage gunslinger in a Western movie typically observes before the shootout.

A Seahawks organization that seemed to be hiding in the weeds ended up making the most noise, as usual. Whatever else can be said about the roster-building tandem of general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll, they are never boring.

More important, they are right more often than they are wrong. The trade Tuesday for playmaking tight end Jimmy Graham will be recalled as their best deal since the 2010 swipe of running back Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo.

A team in search of a tall, sure-handed, red-zone target for Russell Wilson gets a 6-foot-7 receiver who has scored so often — 51 career touchdowns — that he’s become synonymous with the since-banned crossbar dunk in the end zone.

Unlike the acquisition of Lynch, who cost only a fourth-round selection, there was a price for Graham, and it was steep: Former Pro Bowl center Max Unger, along with a first-rounder in next month’s draft, is headed for New Orleans.

Between the departures of Unger and guard James Carpenter, who signed a free-agent contract with the New York Jets, the Hawks’ offensive line is looking like one of those stretches of Interstate 5 that’s always under construction.

When healthy, Unger provided a kind of glue for a line in perpetual flux. But Unger’s health was an issue this past season, when he missed 10 games and forced offensive line coach Tom Cable to cobble together castaways whose most apparent skill was their adaptability.

Remember the franchise-record 596 yards the Seahawks gained against Arizona on Dec. 21? Anchoring the line at center that night was Patrick Lewis, an undrafted free agent who had bounced around four teams during his two-season career .

“He’s got a cool brain,” Cable said of Lewis a few days later. “He picked up things in a short period of time. That always piques my interest when a guy has the ability to do that.”

Don’t underestimate Cable’s voice in the trade. He clearly sees Lewis as a capable option to fill in for Unger, but neither is irreplaceable.

A savvy center who can arrange impromptu blocking assignments moments before the snap of the ball is to be valued. A 6-7 receiver demanding double coverage is to be treasured.

If you’re still on the fence about the trade, consider their web pages on pro-football-reference.com. The players compared to five-year pro Graham after five years include Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Ditka, Jackie Smith, Tony Gonzalez, Charlie Sanders, John Mackey and Kellen Winslow.

Witten, Gronkowski and Gonzalez likely are headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The others are already enshrined.

The players compared to six-year pro Unger after six years? Eric Moore, Ryan Kalil, Wally Williams, Raleigh McKenzie, Mike Wahle, Cosey Coleman and Joe Andruzzi.

Put simply, the Seahawks swung a deal Tuesday for a potential Hall of Famer who gives their offense the big-play dimension it often lacks inside the 20-yard line.

I know, skeptics will point out Seattle’s last blockbuster trade for a big-play talent resulted in the headache that was Percy Harvin. I know, too, that Graham all but disappeared in two games against the Seahawks, and that some of his new teammates have belittled the former University of Miami basketball forward as a soft, overrated diva disinclined to engage in collisions with the Legion of Boom.

Given the internal unrest brought on by Harvin, and Graham’s caustic exchange with some Seahawks before Seattle’s 2013 playoff game against the Saints, you’d think trading for him would rank, as a bucket-list ambition, somewhere between retiring the No. 86 jersey of Jerramy Stevens and arranging former owner Ken Behring to raise the 12th Man flag.

You’d think that way, and I’d think that way, but Schneider and Carroll don’t think in ways everybody else does.

They evaluated a 2014 offense that finished 29th, among 32 NFL teams, in converting goal-to-go opportunities into touchdowns. They talked about trading for somebody who can give a power-running offense an ulterior threat — Harvin’s failure to deliver as that threat, I can guarantee you, was prominent in the discussion — and they pulled the trigger anyway.

Lots of pro football news was made Tuesday, but thanks to a partnership as reliably gutsy as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the most startling news was made by the Seahawks.

The second-best team in the NFL just got better, by leaps and bounds, with the acquisition of a go-to receiver whose specialty is leaps and bounds.

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