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Jimmy Graham rediscovers end zone, inches up Seahawks' priority list

It's become much easier to envision Jimmy Graham remaining with the Seattle Seahawks beyond 2017 than it was a few months ago.

An eight-game touchdown binge will do that.

Graham's 11-yard score in Seattle's win Sunday night over the Philadelphia Eagles gave him nine receiving touchdowns on the season -- all over the past eight games. That total is tops among tight ends and is tied for the league lead.

Graham had already broken the Seahawks' season record for touchdowns by a tight end; John Carlson had seven in 2009. He now has a franchise-record 17 touchdowns over his three seasons with Seattle, two more than Jerramy Stevens totaled from 2002 to 2006.

Graham has returned to being a touchdown machine at an interesting time, with his contract set to expire at season's end.

Let's look at some of the factors that will determine his future with the Seahawks.

Red zone is again Graham's zone

The common perception that Graham was a poor fit in Seattle's offense over his first two seasons was based on unrealistic expectations. Going from a pass-first scheme in New Orleans to a more balanced attack in Seattle meant Graham was never going to catch as many passes for as many yards as he did with the Saints.

Graham's 65 catches for 923 yards in 2016 earned him a Pro Bowl berth and set franchise records for a tight end. He was on pace for similar numbers in 2015 before he tore his patellar tendon in the team's 11th game.

Contextually, those are good seasons. But Graham's touchdown production -- one thing that could have realistically carried over from New Orleans to Seattle -- left something to be desired. He caught two touchdowns in 2015 and six in 2016 after averaging 11.5 over his final four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Thirty-five of Graham's 46 touchdowns over that four-year span came in the red zone.

He's back to being unstoppable in that part of the field, with all nine of his touchdowns coming from inside the 20-yard line and seven coming from 6 yards or closer.

Graham has been close with quarterback Russell Wilson since he arrived in Seattle in 2015, yet their on-field chemistry has grown. That has been a factor in Graham's increased touchdown production. Simply getting more opportunities has been another. Seattle targeted Graham 29 times in the red zone over his first 31 games with the team, according to ESPN charting. He caught eight touchdowns in that stretch compared to nine over the past eight games, when he's been targeted 19 times.

Graham probably would have again commanded a premium on his next contract one way or another. It wouldn't have made as much sense for the Seahawks to shell out top dollar to keep him if they had gone three seasons without seeing the type of red zone production he's giving them now.

What Graham might cost

When the Seahawks acquired Graham in 2015, they inherited the remainder of the four-year, $40 million contract he signed in 2014 with the Saints. That leftover total was $27 million over three seasons.

The initial $10 million average remains the largest among NFL tight ends. That the market at that position has not grown like it has at others could keep Graham from getting much of a raise on his next deal, though it's a safe bet he'll ask for one.

Recall that Graham argued unsuccessfully in 2014 that he should be a considered a receiver for franchise-tag purposes because of how often he lined up in the slot or out wide. If I'm Graham, I'm asking for a deal that equals or surpasses Doug Baldwin's $11.5 million average. And if I'm the Seahawks, I'm citing how the tight end market has been stagnant since Graham signed his last deal and I'm offering something similar to the $9 million average that they've been paying him.

Graham turned 31 last month, so a three-year deal would probably be more appealing from the team's perspective than one lasting four years. If the two sides meet somewhere in the middle, a three-year deal worth around $30 million seems realistic.

The Seahawks will also have the franchise tag at their disposal. The franchise number for tight ends in 2017 is $9.78 million, so it should be above $10 million in 2018 assuming another increase in the salary cap. That could still be a reasonable one-year cost for the Seahawks in the absence of a multiyear agreement, and they could use that as leverage in negotiations.

Graham and Seahawks' other UFAs

Graham is among the Seahawks starters scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at season's end. The others: defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, left guard Luke Joeckel, wide receiver Paul Richardson, cornerback Byron Maxwell, strong safety Bradley McDougald and linebacker Michael Wilhoite. Kicker Blair Walsh will be a UFA as well.

Sheldon Richardson has made much more of an impact than his only sack would suggest. He's been strong against the run and has made key plays, including Sunday's goal-line strip of Carson Wentz. The degree to which Seattle will prioritize re-signing him will probably depend on Malik McDowell's status after he missed his entire rookie season because of a head injury.

McDougald and Maxwell will be also affected by the health of other players. They've moved into starting roles -- and have played well -- following season-ending injuries to Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. Chancellor's football future is up in the air because of a neck injury. Sherman's future with Seattle is uncertain in its own right.

Joeckel has been much better than his harshest critics would suggest, but he's missed five games following another knee surgery. His health combined with how the offensive line market has spiked makes his situation tough to predict.

Paul Richardson is having a career year as the Seahawks' No. 2 receiver, but he has an injury history of his own, and Seattle has younger talent behind him. His production would be easier to replace than Graham's.

Wilhoite plays strongside linebacker, which is a part-time position in Seattle's defense.

There's a lot that still has to be sorted out between now and free agency, but it's entirely conceivable that re-signing Graham will be at or near the top of Seattle's list of priorities.