Will Jimmy Graham Be an Elite Fantasy Football Tight End in 2017?

Graham's fantasy value should benefit from one of the league's worst offensive lines and a clean bill of health.

In March of 2015, a blockbuster trade orchestrated by the Saints and Seahawks sent star tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle. Even though he was leaving a high-powered attack behind in New Orleans, hopes were high for Graham entering an offense driven by Russell Wilson. Before the 2015 season, some went so far as to project Graham in the same class of elite fantasy tight end as Rob Gronkowski.

But moving from a pass-happy offense to a run-heavy one led to a shrinking role for Graham in 2015, and on top of that, he suffered a torn patellar tendon after 11 games. He finished outside the top 10 among tight ends in fantasy per game that season in PPR formats.

Last year, Graham bounced back from his devastating injury with 65 receptions, 923 yards, and 6 touchdowns -- he finished fourth in fantasy scoring at the tight end position in both standard and PPR formats.

Fantasy owners cooled on Graham last summer coming off his disappointing 2015. Has his market fully recovered after his solid 2016 campaign, or is he suddenly a value heading into 2017?

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Graham's average draft position (ADP) is 5.12 in standard drafts, and he's going in the sixth round for PPR -- TE5 in both. At that price, Graham presents an intriguing mid-round tight end option in Seattle's offense.

Career Production

According to our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), Graham has outperformed the league average at his position throughout his career. NEP uses historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected for a player on each individual play. Positive NEP is earned when a player performs above expectation, and vice versa.

Even in Graham's first season playing in Seattle, when he was considered a disappointment in the fantasy world, he smashed the league-average Reception NEP per target for tight ends, which was 0.59. The season after tearing his patellar tendon, the league average was 0.62 -- and he smashed it again.

Likewise, Graham's Reception Success Rate (the percentage of his catches which contribute to a positive NEP) has far exceeded the league average for tight ends throughout his career. The only year Graham fell below league average was 2015 (80.72%), his first season in Seattle. In 2016, after knee surgery, Graham bounced back to finish well above the league average of 81.54%.

Year Team Reception NEP per Target Reception Success Rate
2010 NO 0.83 87.10%
2011 NO 0.73 88.89%
2012 NO 0.67 85.88%
2013 NO 0.84 90.70%
2014 NO 0.59 90.59%
2015 SEA 0.74 79.17%
2016 SEA 0.74 86.15%

Context is important here: of tight ends with at least 95 targets in 2016, Graham ranked second in both Reception NEP per target and Reception Success Rate.

These numbers show that Graham is a great football player. Even in seasons in which he learned a new playbook and recovered from a career-threatening injury, he still managed to perform above expectation when his number was called. So now that he doesn't have to worry about any of those obstacles in 2017, Graham is a strong bet to finish among the top tight ends in fantasy.

Usage In Seattle

It's fair to wonder if Graham's production will ever reach the heights he saw in New Orleans, considering the Seahawks ranked 18th in pass attempts in 2016. However, over the course of Wilson's career, the Seahawks have increased their pass attempts each season.

Seattle targeted the tight end position on 21% of its pass attempts in 2016 (10th-most in the league), but Graham's overall target share was just 17.3%.

It's been reported, though, that Graham wasn't 100 percent healthy for a large portion of last season. In fact, Graham revealed that he barely practiced during the 2016 campaign in order to be ready for games. It wouldn't be surprising to see Graham's target share and snap percentage (81.5%) to rise in 2017 if he's fully healthy and practicing on a regular basis.

Another factor impacting Graham's usage is offensive line play. Seattle's offensive line is ranked as the league's worst heading into 2017, per Pro Football Focus. And, last season when Wilson was under pressure, he looked for Graham more than any other receiver. If the Seahawks' line is as bad as it's supposed to be, we can continue to expect Wilson to use Graham as a safety valve when avoiding pressure.

Graham's time removed from injury and Wilson's increased reliance on the tight end in the passing game should allow Graham to put up solid numbers this season.

Fantasy Outlook

Going around the five-six turn in drafts, Graham represents a nice pick in fantasy drafts this season. He is currently the fifth tight end off the board, being drafted just behind Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen.

With his injury concerns behind him, Graham's potential uptick in usage makes him a strong bet to finish as an upper-tier tight end. Unlike some of the tight ends going in his area (Reed and Tyler Eifert), Graham comes without much injury concern this season, and he doesn't have the exorbitant price tag he used to carry from his Saints days.

In all, Graham makes sense as a mid-round target in 2017.