Thomas Rawls and Jimmy Graham were key players in the Seahawks’ surprising offensive evolution in 2015 — Rawls replacing injury-ravaged Marshawn Lynch and offering more speed through the hole and Graham helping the Hawks become more potent through the air.
Of course, just as the offense started to click in November, both players were lost to injuries in a three-week span.
Considering the severity of the injuries — a torn patellar tendon for Graham and a broken ankle for Rawls — it was no surprise that the Seahawks loaded up at tight end and running back this offseason.
So, as Rawls and Graham return to practice this week, they find themselves on an offense that is even more stacked than the one they helped set a team yardage record last year.
Rawls comes into a backfield that should be a full house in a week or so — with resurgent Christine Michael and rookies Alex Collins and C.J. Prosise. Even with Cooper Helfet on IR, Graham returns to a full tight end room — with Luke Willson, rookie Nick Vannett and new addition Brandon Williams.
Those players have improved depth and enabled the team to be patient with Rawls and Graham in their rehab.
“After they drafted the guys, I was excited,” Rawls said. “We’ve got some young good talent coming in, and the expectation is for the position. So it doesn’t matter if Thomas is back there, it doesn’t matter if Christine is back there, it doesn’t matter if these other guys are back there — when you’re back there, you have to be a Seattle Seahawk.”
Like Graham, Rawls is expected to remain the starter. But there’s no guarantee either will be quite ready by Week 1. Neither they nor OC Darrell Bevell committed to any firm timeline for a return to the lineup.
Bevell called it “a process that you’ve got to go through. As long as things continue to go the way that they are, then we feel good about it. There is still a long way to go and a lot of work for them to do.”
Rawls said he is “day by day.” Graham merely said his goal was to rebuild chemistry with Russell Wilson.
“My biggest timeline was to get on the field and to start that connection with Russ again,” he said. “That was the biggest goal for me for the last three months: How soon can I get out here and start this connection with Russ?”
Graham’s injury was more serious than Rawls’ and still could cause him trouble if he is not careful. To that end, he talked to former players who have gone through it. Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who suffered a setback with a calf injury last year, told Graham to take his time returning.
“One of the bigger things is injuring something else coming off this,” Graham said. “That’s why I’ve been doing kind of a full-body rehab. I mean, the longest I’ve taken off from working out in my entire career is two weeks. So to have 10 months off, I guess the rest of my body had time to heal as well.
“You don’t want to rush it back. You want to take your time and come back when you’re ready. That’s why I wasn’t out here Day 1. I’ve been running for a long time and I’ve been running routes and cutting hard. To me, the rehab is twice as hard as practice has ever been, just grinding through all these agilities. I mean, I’m running 36 50s out here; that’s not fun at all. So, for me, just take my time and don’t rush it; don’t feel rushed.”
Like Rawls, Graham said everyone in the organization has “been awesome with taking their time and being patient with me, making sure that you’re strong enough.”
So, once both are ready to go, how will they fit? Will Rawls, who led the NFL at 5.6 yards per attempt in 2015, climb back to the top of the RB depth chart? Will Graham carve out his role in a passing offense that matured with Wilson throwing to Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett?
Despite all of the complaints about Graham’s fit last year, he still finished with the second-best season by a tight end in franchise history: 48 catches and 605 yards (just two scores though). He was targeted a team-high 6.7 times a game (Baldwin was at 6.4).
Bevell disagreed with any assertion that the Hawks failed to use Graham.
“I think we were doing a good job of getting him involved,” Seattle’s sixth-year OC said. “The cool thing about our offense is that we have a lot of skill guys that are returning, a lot of guys at similar positions. There’s some good rapport already built up — with Doug and Jermaine (Kearse) and Tyler and Jimmy and Luke — and we don’t feel like we have to force feed it to anybody.
“Never before, I don’t think, have I ever had a guy that has had a hundred catches — and I don’t foresee it being that way. If we can spread the ball out and everybody’s making plays for us, then I think we are a much more effective offense that way rather than trying to force feed one guy.”
Graham said the game in which he was injured — a 39-30 win over Pittsburgh in Week 12 — was a big example of that.
“Even in that game, I think as whole team we were just clicking on all cylinders,” he said. “We just started kind of believing in each other. Things were clicking that game; it felt like that game for us was a huge turning point.”
He doesn’t think the Hawks will turn back this year either.
“I mean, you can feel the buzz in our building through OTAs to minicamp to this (point). It’s just a different mentality and just a different mindset this year. You know all the guys are bonded and everybody’s one, so I don’t think you’ll see that this year.”