Jimmy Graham has become the red zone threat the Seahawks thought he'd be

Jimmy Graham is still as big and imposing as ever. His increased production in the red zone of late could be down to the fact the Seahawks are throwing the ball to him down there more often. Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

RENTON, Wash. -- After Jimmy Graham scored two more touchdowns last week, bringing his total to six over the past five games, Doug Baldwin was asked how big the Seattle Seahawks tight end has been in the red zone of late.

Baldwin took a literal approach to his response.

"How big has he been?" Baldwin asked. "Well, he's always been 6-12, about 280 pounds."

More like 6-foot-7 and 265, but you get Baldwin's point: Graham's massive frame makes him a pretty tough cover in that part of the field.

Only now, though -- two and a half seasons into Graham's tenure with the Seahawks -- is he starting to become the dominant red zone threat that everyone assumed he'd be.

When Seattle acquired Graham in a 2015 trade, he wasn't necessarily expected to catch as many passes or rack up as many yards as he did with the New Orleans Saints. He was going from a pass-heavy offense in which he was the top receiving option to a much more balanced attack in Seattle, so that just wasn't realistic.

But his touchdown production, specifically in the red zone, was one thing that seemed like it could carry over from New Orleans to Seattle. Graham caught 51 touchdowns in 78 games over his five seasons with the Saints, including 40 from inside the 20-yard line. In 27 games over his first two seasons with the Seahawks, he caught only eight touchdown passes, with five coming in the red zone. He went without a touchdown over the first four games of 2017.

Graham made a remarkable recovery from a torn patellar tendon that cut short his debut season in Seattle to catch 65 passes for 923 yards in 2016. Those were single-season franchise records for a tight end. But his touchdown production over his first two seasons in Seattle and the start of his third left something to be desired given how he was pretty close to unstoppable in the red zone with New Orleans.

So what has changed?

The simple answer is that the Seahawks have been throwing the ball to Graham in that part of the field with more frequency this season, particularly of late. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Seattle targeted Graham 25 times in the red zone in 2015-16 compared to 16 already in 2017 -- four over the first four games and 12 in the past five.

But it also has been a matter of improved execution. None of Graham's four targets over the first four games produced a catch, while the 12 since then have resulted in nine receptions and all six of his touchdowns.

During a play near the goal line in Week 3 against Tennessee, Graham was split out wide with a much smaller defensive back lined up across from him. It was a favorable one-on-one matchup, but Russell Wilson's lob pass sailed over Graham's head and out of the side of the end zone.

The Seahawks got a similar look in the same part of the field against the Rams two weeks later. That time, they didn't miss. Wilson hit Graham for a 4-yard touchdown, and so began what has been a successful connection near the goal line.

Graham caught a 1-yard touchdown pass in Seattle's next game, against the Giants. He caught two more touchdowns the following week -- another 1-yard score and an 18-yard game-winner against the Texans. His touchdowns against Arizona last Thursday were from 2 and 6 yards.

"We've been harping on perfecting that pass in the red zone," Baldwin said. "It's got to be easy for us. Russ has got to make the throw, Jimmy's got to make the catch. That should be automatic for us. It's been working out pretty well."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Graham now has 51 career touchdown catches in the red zone. That's second only to Rob Gronkowski's 52 since they entered the league together in 2010.

"I know everyone’s been wanting to see that and we’re seeing that," coach Pete Carroll said. "Jimmy is doing a great job and Russell is doing a great job with it. He’s just that kind of player. You know it’s coming and you can get it anyway. Pretty extraordinary.”

Graham's future with the Seahawks has become a never-ending question. Before the deadline last month, trade rumors had gained enough traction that Carroll and general manager John Schneider both felt a need to shoot down any notion that Graham could be on the move.

Graham, who turns 31 next month, is perhaps the most prominent of several Seahawks who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Until recently, Graham signing elsewhere has seemed like the most likely outcome. The general feeling has been that his overall production may not justify a price tag that could again be at or near $10 million per season. And Graham, the thinking has gone, may want to return to a pass-first offense in which he could again be a focal point like he was in New Orleans.

But it has become easier to envision Graham staying put, whether it be under the franchise tag or a new deal.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Seahawks have dropped back to pass on 66 percent of their offensive plays this season, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Graham's 39 catches through nine games put him on pace to top the team record for a tight end that he set last season.

And he has finally emerged as the red zone threat he was expected to be.

"I’m really pleased about it because it’s what we all hoped would happen and we would get it done," Carroll said. "It’s taken a little time to find the real rhythm of it, but at the halfway point, we're just trying to utilize him for his strengths and hope that we can continue to have some success down there. He's doing a great job and Russell, you can see them working together. It’s really obvious and hopefully we can keep making it tough on our opponents.”