A year ago at this time, the Seahawks were preparing to start the season with a shiny new Pro Bowl tight end and a new center, replacing the injury-prone veteran they had traded for the tight end.
The Seahawks were willing to let Max Unger go because he had not been able to stay healthy in the previous two seasons, and they expected Jimmy Graham to enhance their passing game by giving Russell Wilson a big over-the-middle target.
The results were about the opposite of what you might expect. Just as Wilson and Graham were getting into a rhythm, Graham’s season was cut short by a torn patellar tendon. Meanwhile, Unger, who had missed 13 games in 2013 and 2014 for Seattle, started every game for the Saints.
So, as the 2016 season nears, Unger suddenly is the sure thing — receiving a big contract extension from the Saints — and Graham is just trying to get back on the field and prove he merits his own extension after the season.
Graham has had great workouts before each of the last two preseason games and seems on track to return to game play sometime this month, perhaps the opener Sept. 11.
“Jimmy’s close now,” coach Pete Carroll said. “His confidence is way up. He’s demonstrated he can go out and battle with us on the practice field, which is the same thing that Thomas (Rawls) did.
“He’s doing everything he can to get back, and I’m fired up for him. He looked great again in pre-game.”
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 (Doug Baldwin was at 6.4).
The offense really took off right around the time he was hurt, in a 39-30 win over Pittsburgh in Week 12, and it will be interesting to see how Graham fits back in with Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and the rest.
“I think we were doing a good job of getting him involved,” OC Darrell Bevell said during training camp. “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.”
This week, Bevell said, “Now he’s out here with what is really the next part of the progression for him. Seeing him with bodies running around against him and the leverage, pushing off and loading his leg a little bit more. He’s going through the process and he’s doing good. We like what we’ve seen, but we obviously need to continue to bring that along.”
It remains to be seen whether Graham makes it back for the opener — he probably will be a game-time decision. But the Hawks have taken their time bringing him back, and he has had no setbacks so far.
He talked earlier in camp about the importance of not rushing.
“You don’t want to rush it back,” he said. “You want to take your time and come back when you’re ready.”
Because Graham is a big tight end who relies more on his size than on sudden, knee-twisting moves, he might fare better than the running backs (e.g., Cadillac Williams, Correll Buckhalter) and receivers (e.g., Victor Cruz) who have suffered the same injury.
His ability to rebound and play at the same high level this year will determine whether the Hawks consider keeping him beyond 2017.
Graham is due a $2 million roster bonus on the third day of the 2017 league year (March). That could be a soft deadline for making a decision on him for 2017, if he fails to come back to form this season and the team doesn’t think he will in 2017 either.
Assuming he does return to play stellar, though, the Hawks will be looking at a possible extension next year (along with possible new deals for Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor). Graham will have to play like Doug Baldwin to merit the same $11 million a year, but the Hawks can afford it if they want to.
But Graham has to stay healthy earn it, just like Unger did with the Saints.