Saints’ interest in Unger creates another shot at TE-focused offense

Jimmy Graham scores against the SeahawksIt turns out the Seahawks were not just getting rid of Max Unger in the Jimmy Graham deal.

Saints coach Sean Payton specifically asked John Schneider about acquiring the former Pro Bowl center, and then the two sides began talking about compensation.

The first-round pick the Hawks included in the deal made it seem as if Seattle had approached New Orleans about Graham, but that’s not the way it happened, according to Schneider and other sources.

“They had strong interest in Max,” the Seattle GM told 710 ESPN. “They really want to fix their center positon (and) concentrate on their defense. For us, it was, ‘OK, who are the players involved?’ (Graham) came into the fray and we started talking about it.”

The Saints apparently were still at odds with Graham over the franchise tag battle last year, when the tagged him as a tight end and he filed a grievance seeking to be tagged as a wide receiver, which would have paid him about $5 million more. He ended up signing a four-year, $40 million contract.

Now the Hawks have him for the final three years of that deal — assuming they don’t change it or he somehow doesn’t work out.

This is the latest — and perhaps best — chance for the Seahawks to create the kind of tight-end-focused offense they have tried in the past.

As you may recall, the last time they made a similarly surprising move for a tight end, signing Zach Miller in 2011, they figured to pair him with John Carlson, who had a big game in the Seahawks’ Beast Quake upset of the Saints in the playoffs. Pairing the AFC Pro Bowl tight end Miller with Carlson seemed like it would create matchup nightmares for defenses — part of a growing trend that the Patriots had started with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Seattle play caller Darrell Bevell has used his tight ends in creative fashion before, and Graham’s versatility figures to create all kinds of favorable matchups for the Hawks, who have some interesting possibilities with Luke Willson, Anthony McCoy and Cooper Helfet also in that unit.

“I think it’s a heck of a group right now,” Schneider said. “I’d argue it’s one of the better ones in the league right now. Adding a guy like Jimmy is all about adding being able to add a difference maker.”

The Hawks don’t care about the “soft” label some have placed on Graham, because, Schneider said, “He’s an excellent athlete. His strengths are the speed and the athleticism and his ability to post up.”

“Is he a dominant run blocker? No, he’s not. But he’s a dominant pass catcher, and he’s a difference maker in the passing game.”

The Seahawks expect Graham to make the entire offense better.

Coach Pete Carroll said, “The opportunity to get a player that can make these types of plays that we’ve seen Jimmy Graham do for a number of years really got us excited in complementing the rest of our team. We think he’s a fantastic target that we can implement in a number of ways. … He’s a big receiver, plays big, makes plays in a crowd, makes plays on top of guys, is a very effective player in the red zone, he’s been a consistent scorer. So all of that stuff, we’re going to fit it into our offense and make him a very obvious complementary part of it.”

And they expect him to fit into the locker room, despite the little pregame brouhaha between Graham and Bruce Irvin before the playoff meeting in January 2014.

“I think that’s gamesmanship and guys getting ready to play and all that, and that’s all understood,” Carroll said. “I know a number of our players have already contacted him and talked to Jimmy and I’m sure that helps him if he had any thoughts (it wouldn’t work). We’ve had good visits with him already as well. I’m not worried about it a bit. It’ll be great to get him in here with our guys. I’m sure they’ll get together well before we can even start working here at the facility and expect that all of the groundwork for that relationship will start all over again.”

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