Jimmy Graham in Seattle: An Efficient but Underused Option

What’s behind Seattle’s use of their star tight so far this season?

It was the trade that surprised many during the offseason.

The Seattle Seahawks traded their starting center, Max Unger, and a first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints to acquire superstar tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick.

There was much excitement in Seattle for the trade, giving quarterback Russell Wilson the rest receiving option he’s had in his young career. Then the season started, game plans unfolded, and Graham was used more like a run-of-the-mill tight end than a matchup nightmare receiver.

Through four games this season. Graham has been targeted 23 times, a pace of 5.8 targets per game, which over the course of a full year would be a career low for Graham since becoming a full-time player in his second season. His targets per game has dropped in every season since 2011, but never as much as the current drop from 2014 to 2015. The drop is even more striking when considering Graham’s health status for much of the 2014 while being hampered by a shoulder injury that made him nothing more than a decoy in some games.

On the surface it seems strange just because of what the Seahawks gave up to get Graham in the offseason. Seattle must have known what it was getting too, as Graham was not playing a role of tight end who just happened to excel at catching passes. He was being utilized as a receiver, placing him in spots on the field and running routes that were virtually uncoverable for many opposing defenses. That has not been the case so far in Seattle, and the usage is even more questionable when looking at some of the numbers.

Quality and Quantity

It’s not as if the Seahawks are ignoring Graham in the passing game. He’s been integrated like a normal part of the offense and is just one target behind Doug Baldwin for the team lead. Seattle, over the past three years, has been a fairly balanced passing offense when spreading around targets. Since coming into the league, only once has Wilson targeted a receiver on more than 20 percent of his passes in a given season -- Golden Tate in 2012. On average, Wilson’s top target gets a ball thrown to him on just 19.8 percent of his pass attempts. Last season, though, Baldwin led in target share by getting a ball thrown his way on just 14.5 percent of Wilson’s attempts.

So far this year both Baldwin and Graham are over Baldwin’s mark from last season (18.8 and 18.1 percent, respectively), but the structure of the offense -- and Wilson’s decision making -- is still getting the ball spread around quite a bit. That’s fine when there’s not a true top receiving talent on the roster; it’s less fine when Jimmy Graham is on the field for over 80 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.

But there’s more to this than just the logic of increasing the utilization of a receiver like Graham.

Best of the Bunch

Our Net Expected Points (NEP), which factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels, suggests he’s the best part of Seattle’s passing offense so far. 

Through four weeks of the season, Graham has a Reception NEP per target of 0.83, which along with being the ninth highest mark for tight ends with at least 10 targets, is the best on Seattle. Jermaine Kearse’s 0.77 Reception NEP per target on 20 targets follows closely behind, but there’s quite a drop off to Baldwin at 0.65.

Seattle has never been a high volume offense, though. And in the passing game, they have stressed quality over quantity. That hasn’t really been the case this season, either. The Seahawks rank 24th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play in 2015 after ranking 12th last season.

In Graham’s peak seasons, he was able to hold higher efficiency numbers while still seeing a high volume of targets. In 2013 he had a Reception NEP per target of 0.84, seventh among tight ends, while leading the position with 142 targets. In that same season 11 wide receivers saw more targets, but only two had a higher Reception NEP per target than Graham.

Finding a Solution

Sure there’s more to getting Graham involved in the offense than just throwing him the ball more, but it shouldn’t be the tough process it appears to be in Seattle right now.

With Graham, the Seahawks can even afford to lose efficiency while trying to get him the ball more. Last season, Graham’s Reception NEP per target was just 0.59, and he was still able to do Jimmy Graham-like things on the field. That was a hurt Graham, and likely a worst case scenario for performance.

In a best case, this type of per-play efficiency can hold up. But if he’s not getting the ball more, it’s not something the Seahawks will be able to find out.