Seahawks, Jimmy Graham need to solve red zone production

RENTON, Wash. -- Now that safety Kam Chancellor has signed a three-year contract extension, the Seattle Seahawks' highest profile pending free agent is tight end Jimmy Graham.

Coming off a ruptured patellar tendon in 2015, Graham turned in a solid 2016 season, finishing with 923 receiving yards (third among tight ends) and six touchdowns, but there is still a feeling that he hasn't quite found his role in the offense.

Pete Carroll said Tuesday that the team had to manage Graham's injury throughout last season, and the coach expects the tight end to have a big year in 2017.

"We had to manage him the whole year," Carroll said. "He just kept hanging in there. He played in every game and didn’t miss any time, but he wasn’t at his best. You can see him now. But that’s what great athletes, great performers and great competitors do. They find a way. Jimmy did that most admirably, and I know how grateful he feels now that he made it through that and we handled it the way we did. He survived it, and now he is really moving up."

In the past two years, there have been a lot of questions about how the Seahawks have used Graham, especially when compared to what he accomplished with the New Orleans Saints. Below is an attempt to provide answers on where things stand going into this season.

Are the Seahawks getting him the ball enough?

From 2011 to 2014, Graham averaged 8.7 targets per game with the Saints. In the past two seasons with the Seahawks, that number is 6.1.

The drop can be attributed to two factors. One is simply that the Seahawks throw the ball less than the Saints. Graham has had to learn how to be a factor as a run-blocker and has drawn praise from the coaches for his effort in that area.

The second is that the Seahawks' offense spreads the ball around. In New Orleans, Graham was targeted on 26.1 percent of his routes. In Seattle, that number has dropped to 20.5 percent, which ranks 19th among tight ends.

The Seahawks need to do what's best for the offense and for the team. In 2015, they had the most efficient offense in the NFL. Last season, they dropped all the way down to 16th. Much of that had to do with quarterback Russell Wilson's injuries, an inconsistent run game and a shaky offensive line.

But pointing out that getting Graham the ball more last season could have helped is completely fair.

How has Graham performed when they do target him?

Graham has averaged 13.52 yards per reception with the Seahawks, up from 12.38 with the Saints.

His catch percentage is up too -- from 64.7 percent in New Orleans to 68.5 percent in Seattle. In terms of yards after the catch, Graham has been better with the Seahawks -- up to 4.77 from 4.05 with the Saints.

In other words, efficiency has been a strength when Wilson has targeted Graham.

What about the red zone?

This is where things get ugly. Graham has caught just 36 percent of his targets in the red zone over the past two seasons. That ranks 33rd -- or dead last -- among qualifying tight ends.

From 2011 to 2014 with the Saints, Graham posted a catch rate of 58.1 percent in the red zone -- 50 receptions on 86 targets, including 35 touchdowns, which was more than any other tight end in the NFL during that span.

It's not that the Seahawks need to throw Graham the ball more in the red zone. It's that they need to be a whole lot better when they do pass it to him. In New Orleans, Graham was targeted on 30.3 percent of his red zone routes. In Seattle, that number is down only slightly to 27.5 percent. In 27 games with the Seahawks, Graham has just nine red zone receptions and five touchdowns.

The struggles can be attributed to a number of different things -- the scheme/playcalling, Wilson and the offensive line.

But the bottom line is that the Seahawks have to be more efficient with Graham in the red zone in 2017.

What's next?

The tight end market has not gone up since Graham signed his last contract ($40 million over four years) in 2014. At $10 million per year, he is still the NFL's top-paid tight end.

Graham will turn 31 in November, but he has missed only five games in the past four seasons. The way he came back from the ruptured patellar tendon -- one of the most devastating injuries in football -- confirmed his status as one of the game's true freaks.

Graham's future probably is in his own hands. The Seahawks have the franchise tag at their disposal, but using it on Graham seems unlikely. The most likely scenario is that Graham plays out the final year of his deal. After the season, he'll have the option of testing the open market and finding a more pass-heavy offense or returning to the Seahawks.