“I’ll take Jimmy Graham…” As I scour the 32 NFL Teams to identify who I might target when I’m on the clock during my Fantasy Football Draft I found myself surveying the Seattle Seahawks roster and while Doug Baldwin has earned the respect of the Fantasy Football Community, yet may still be undervalued I thought to myself, “Self… tight end has a tendency to be a wasteland, go with a known quantity at premium value. Take Jimmy Graham.”
Third time is the charm! Long gone are the days Jimmy Graham commanded 138 targets a season as he did over a 4-year span with the pass happy New Orleans Saints (2011-2014). However, the 30-year-old tight end is poised to start the 2017 campaign healthy and comfortable in the Seahawks offense as he enters his third season with the team. When the Saints shipped Graham to Seattle for center Max Unger and eventual 1st round selection Stephone Anthony, the fantasy community knew that there would be a statistical drop-off considering Sean Payton’s penchant for abandoning the running game and Drew Brees making the 5,000 yard passing threshold a mere parlor trick in his annual routine. But a certain contract extension and play call during Super Bowl 49 decisively swung the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive philosophy-pendulum towards being a team (at a minimum) that passes to set up the run.
Graham finished the 2016 season as a Top 4 TE (in most formats – 0.5 PPR for argument sake) despite a total of eight tight ends receiving more targets than he did last season. Currently he is the 5th tight end coming off the board according to early Average Draft Position (ADP) figures and can be had for a sixth round pick, which is reasonable. I advise against falling prey to the recent injection of talented youngsters at the tight end position courtesy of the 2017 NFL Draft. Don’t reach. Certainly, if you’re thinking in terms of Dynasty by all means find a way to get O.J. Howard, David Njoku, and/or Evan Engram on your roster but the steep learning curve for rookie tight ends is well documented and there has been a great deal of volatility at the tight end position in fantasy circles from year-to-year (re-draft) beyond mainstays such as Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Graham, Delanie Walker and more recently Travis Kelce.
Speaking of Kelce, last season’s top TE set career highs in virtually every statistical category except for TDs (4). He’s never had more than five in his four NFL seasons and while his target share both inside and between the 20s stand to increase with Jeremy Maclin no longer in town I do not foresee him becoming a double-digit TD guy particularly with QB Alex Smith at the controls. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2009 for the one and only time an Alex Smith led team had someone catch 10+ TDs. That was Vernon Davis who reeled in a gaudy 13 touchdown grabs which accounted for 72% of the 18 TDs Smith tossed that season. In 2016, Kelce was targeted on roughly 24% of Smith’s attempts. Meanwhile, Graham settled for a paltry 17% share of Russell Wilson’s attempts yet still outpaced Kelce in TDs (6) below his career average of over eight per season. As you know, touchdowns drive Fantasy Football. Despite, the target/reception disparity between Kelce/Graham, Jimmy still hauled in nearly 29% of Wilson’s TD passes in a season where Wilson’s TD-to-ATT ratio was only 3.8% compared to 6.1% from 2012-2015. Kelce reeled in roughly 27% of Smith’s TD passes. Play design may factor into the difference in TD production between Kelce/Graham but Jimmy has proven to be far more effective at cashing in for “SIX”.
Even though Kelce is firmly entrenched in the prime of his career he’ll be hard pressed to duplicate last season’s effort in terms of yardage even with an expected uptick in targets as there are fewer proven receiving threats in Kansas City’s offense which will result in Kelce becoming a greater focal point of opposing defenses. It stands to reason there will be some regression from a yardage perspective in 2016 particularly with Kelce doing most of his damage after the catch. In fact, 59% of his yardage total came in the form of yards after catch (YAC). Meanwhile only 37% of Graham’s yardage total can be attributed to YAC. While Kelce’s Herculean effort after the catch is the hallmark of his game having to depend so much on individual effort to accumulate receiving yardage suggests that 2016 may be an outlier. And we all know ALL too well… Alex Smith does not consistently push the football downfield which ultimately tempers Kelce’s TD productivity. Not to mention, the Fantasy Community is salivating over what an increased target share means for 2nd year pro Tyreek Hill who is certain to have a larger role in KC’s offense. Even if Kelce manages to break the 1,000 yard receiving barrier once again I’m still not convinced that he finds pay dirt enough to warrant selecting him 2-3 rounds earlier in lieu of waiting on Jimmy Graham.
It isn’t lost on me that during his two seasons as a member of the Seahawks, Graham only averaged 4 TD receptions per year. However, not only is Graham NOT expected to be on the mend or on a pitch count to start the season for the first time during his tenure with the Seahawks but Russell Wilson is expected to be healthy too; a bit further removed from the euphoric honeymoon phase of his marriage and ready to bounce back from a disappointing 2016 season in which he threw for the 2nd lowest TD total of his career (21); still six more than Alex Smith in 2016… Additionally, I’m certain Wilson (546) will far outpace Smith (489) in pass attempts as he did in 2016.
Considering that Jimmy Graham tripled his TD output from Year 1 to Year 2 in the Pacific Northwest and 2016 marked career highs in yards per reception (14.2) as well as catch rate (68.4%) since becoming a full-time starter in 2011 there are no glaring signs of his skills eroding; it simply meant he was healthy and getting acclimated to the Seattle offense (despite rarely practicing). Also, his 923 yard output in 2016 is not that far removed from his career average of 987 yards per season excluding his rookie year. Graham still offers Top 3 potential at the position and can be had nearly three full rounds later than Travis Kelce based on current ADP figures. Rather than an indictment of Travis Kelce who I agree should be ranked over Graham, I believe it behooves Fantasy Footballers to consider the value/return they stand to receive by investing in Graham a few rounds later considering the likes of Graham’s teammate Doug Baldwin, Alshon Jeffrey, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams, and Sammy Watkins are coming off the draft board in that third round range along with Kelce.
Make no mistake offensive coordinator (OC) Darrell Bevell wants to get the football to Jimmy Graham. While his play-calling has been scrutinized by members of the organization as well as the “12s” he seemingly understands that he has a unique piece in Graham. Since Bevell became OC in 2011 and prior to acquiring Graham the leader in targets at the tight end position has averaged about 48 targets a season for the Seahawks. Over the past two seasons in which Graham has played in 27 of a possible 32 games for Seattle he has averaged 84 targets per year, and that number is trending upwards.
I don’t expect Graham to supplant Doug Baldwin as the leading option in the Seahawks passing attack but I do anticipate Graham leading Seattle in touchdowns by approaching if not exceeding double digit trips to the end-zone as he was only one TD shy of the pace Baldwin set (in 2016) despite garnering 31 fewer targets. I don’t believe the anticipated emergence of C.J. Prosise or the addition of Eddie Lacy will temper Graham’s red-zone opportunities. Hell, if they didn’t hand it to Beast Mode they aren’t going to hand it to the law firm of Rawls, Prosise, & Lacy. Nor do I believe the health of Tyler Lockett and/or the development of Paul Richardson will siphon a considerable amount of opportunities for Graham to get his hands on the ball either. Rather, their collective explosiveness may open things up in the short-to-intermediate part of the field for Graham a bit more. Most of all I do not anticipate Jermaine Kearse approaching 90 targets again in which he reeled in less than 50% of said targets. There are already reports that he isn’t a lock to make the final 53.
I will acknowledge that the Seahawks’ offensive line isn’t exactly a strength and Graham spent too much time inline, as a pass protector last season but I’m willing to wager they opt to keep an additional tight end or running back in this season to allow Graham to do what he does best and that is be a receiving threat. The potential for injury does exist but Graham has played in fewer than 15 games only once in his career (11 in 2015). And for those of you concerned with the five consecutive seasons in which Graham’s receptions per game have declined I say, “Fear not!” He should settle in right around his career average at about 4.7 per game. Coupled with his prowess in the red-zone, familiarity with the system and an anticipated uptick in targets the once DOMINANT fantasy commodity that is Jimmy Graham may be a steal in the middle rounds of your Fantasy Football Draft this upcoming season.
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