A year ago, a strong case could be made to take Jimmy Graham in the first round. Many of those reasons apply to his contemporary in New England this year—Rob Gronkowski is a fantasy monster worthy of a top pick—but what became of Graham?
Injuries slowed the 6’7”, 265-pound behemoth down in 2014, causing him to miss a game and hampering him plenty when he was active. Despite some uncharacteristic duds, however, Graham wound up third in fantasy scoring on the year.
He was but a speck in Gronkowski’s wake, but even an injury-marred year couldn’t nuke Graham’s fantasy value.
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
In what proved to be just one of several shocking moves this offseason, Graham was traded away to the Seattle Seahawks for a center and a draft pick. The New Orleans Saints were woefully wanting in cap space, at one point over $20 million above the spending limit. The motivation to move their talented tight end may not have solely been about money, but it was surely a big factor.
That means no more Drew Brees, but Russell Wilson can hardly be called a downgrade at this point.
IS GRAHAM STILL AN ELITE OPTION?
Whether Graham can still perform at elite levels from a fantasy football perspective is the $64,000 question, one that fantasy owners are answering with a resounding “yes” given he has a third-round average draft position (ADP). Taking a closer look at his new situation may cause current owners to wonder if they should have used a lifeline to make the decision.
That is not to say the talent disappeared into the ether as Graham has moved to the Pacific northwest. Far from it—the 28-year-old should still be a nightmare anywhere on the field for opposing defenses. His upside in the red zone is particularly titillating from a fantasy football standpoint.
The issue at hand with Graham is opportunity. Will he garner anywhere near 140-plus targets in Seattle? If recent history holds true, that will not be the case.
New Orleans has been a notoriously pass-happy team with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm. The Saints threw the second-most passes in the league last season and have averaged nearly 661 a year over the past four seasons. The Seahawks, meanwhile, finished dead last in passing attempts last year and have averaged just over 426 per year in the Russell Wilson era.
Granted, Wilson has put up more passes each season to date. The Seahawks threw the ball 454 times last season, an increase of eight percent over 2013. A similar bump would get them around 490. It’s reasonable to think Seattle won’t throw too many more passes than that given the strong defense and run game the Seahawks possess.
Graham was obviously a big part of that Saints offense, and that is certainly reflected in his target totals. The big man nabbed just over 142 prorated targets per season over the past four years—accounting for the pair of games he missed—which was about 21.5 percent of the overall take as a pass catcher.
Let’s assume the Seahawks throw the ball 500 times in 2015 and a healthy Graham becomes a focal point of the passing game to the tune of a 25 percent target rate. That would mean 125 targets, a great number that is still a full target per game less than he has averaged over the past four seasons. Not too shabby.
But those are also generous assumptions given what we know about the Seattle offense. Sure, the Seahawks made a huge trade to land themselves an elite weapon, but they figure to remain a run-oriented team. Getting to 500 passing attempts might be a stretch, as is assuming Graham will see a quarter of his team’s targets. If we go with 490 passing attempts—that number we got from the natural progression over the past three years—and Graham’s average of 21.5 percent target rate, that pushes his total for 2015 down to 105 targets.
At least there is some precedence for a higher target rate in Seattle—Golden Tate garnered 23.6 percent of Wilson’s passing looks back in 2013.
“STOP TRYING TO TELL ME AND TELL ME”
All that to say there is a delicate dance to drafting Graham. He could see a dramatic reduction in targets and still score double-digit touchdowns, which is the real rub. What fewer targets probably means for fantasy owners is increased volatility—when Graham doesn’t score a touchdown, his floor might be far lower than in years’ past.
In other words, Graham is going to be slumming it with the rest of the tight ends. These are issues that typically plague mere mortals at the position. We can reasonably put second-year tight end Travis Kelce in a similar fantasy boat in Kansas City, and he is a bit cheaper in drafts.
- Graham is playing in another great all-around offense.
- He appears to be fully healthy heading into the preseason.
- Graham will be a focal point of the passing offense.
- At 6’7” and 265 pounds, Graham is still a red zone monster
- The Seahawks throw far fewer passes than the Saints, predicating a serious drop in target count for Graham.
- Fantasy owners will still have to spend a high draft pick to get Graham.
Barring injury, Graham is going to be a relatively reliable fantasy option. This is proven from years of watching him, and a drop in target count won’t sink his fantasy stock into Elliott Bay. For that reason, spending a high draft pick on him isn’t a bad idea. Just be prepared to see him off the leaders’ pace in fantasy scoring.
“For me it was very important,” Graham said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’ve played against them a couple of times these last couple of years, and I think we’ve had some chippier moments. That’s the game, and on Sundays I take my job very seriously—I don’t play any games on Sunday. So to go to Maui and really show them who I am as a person and to show them that, ‘listen, I’m all about team and I couldn’t care less about myself.’ Really for them to just see that I’m a good guy was really important.”
Pretty interesting Graham was a strict possession guy last year. I imagine his YPC spike back up this year in that SEA offense.— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) June 26, 2015
You know Graham is catching like 4-5 deep balls after getting lost in coverage when Wilson runs 15 yards backwards in a half circle.— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) June 26, 2015
In each season since 2012 the Seahawks have increased the number of passes thrown during the regular season. That has also come with an increase in total plays, but it allows us to assume Wilson might attempt more than 452 passes this season. That breaks down to 28.25 passes per game. If we project Wilson to increase that number just slightly, we can estimate maybe 30 passes per game. Over a 16 game season, that would equate to 480 passes.
@14TeamMocker But Graham’s #2 today, and he might be closer in value to Ertz than he is to Gronk.— Adam Harstad (@AdamHarstad) June 24, 2015
Graham has been reportedly “unstoppable” at offseason practices this season, per Rob Rang over at Scout.com.
"It's really cool," [Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell] Bevell said. "We missed him a couple of days when he had to go down south (for a funeral). But it's good to see him out here. You could see him show up in the ways that we're hoping he's going to be able to. It's really cool. The sky's the limit for us right now.
"His size is tremendous. With how tall he is, he's got a great catch radius, he can leap up and catch the ball, he's flexible enough that if you throw a back-shoulder throw, he can get back there and get those as well. We're excited to keep playing with it and see what we have."
Jimmy Graham (still #2 TE) & Julius Thomas (dead) aren't the only TE1s facing at big drop-off. Martellus Bennett (mid-low TE1) is with them.— Kyle Wachtel (@KyleWachtel) June 7, 2015