Graham looked out of place during his injury-riddled Seattle debut two seasons ago, but he made an inspiring comeback last year. He tripled his touchdown count, spiked his YPC and was back among the top four on the TE scoring board after a one-year absence. Anyone in the Seattle passing game has to accept that he's trading volume for efficiency. Graham averaged 138 targets during his four busiest New Orleans seasons, but he didn't even make 100 last year, despite playing all 16 games. Graham did rank third among tight ends in red-zone targets, though he only caught six and turned four into scores. One of the takeaways from Graham's 2016 effort -- a torn patellar tendon is no longer a death sentence. That's the injury he encountered in 2015, but he didn't look like a compromised player at all last year. His 4.56 speed from the 2010 Combine mostly seems to be intact, and at 6-7, 265, he's still one of the premier athletes at a position loaded with physical marvels. Four Pro Bowl trips in six years is heady stuff, and Graham should have plenty in the tank entering his age-30 season (he turns 31 around Thanksgiving). But with Seattle's offensive philosophy, Graham doesn't carry the same type of upside he had in the pinball New Orleans days.
Graham's expected transformation of the Seahawks' passing game never came to fruition last season as Seattle inexplicably failed to integrate him into the offense in a meaningful way. It wasn't just a five-year-low target pace, it was how the Seahawks used him, or more accurately, failed to use him. While the Saints kept him in tight about a third of the time, the Seahawks nearly doubled that number, making it harder to create mismatches to take advantage of his near-unstoppable combination of size (6-7, 265) and speed (4.53 40). Failure in the red zone, where he had but a single TD, was perhaps most perplexing. In 11 games, he had eight red-zone targets – four after Week 1 – and three targets inside the 10, none after Week 3. He didn't even move the chains much, tying for eighth among TE in first downs (29) through Week 12. In 2014, he had 45 in that span (T-1st). Worst of all, in Week 12 he suffered a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his right knee, a notoriously difficult injury to overcome. Graham will be "eased into training camp," and it's unclear if he will be ready Week 1. It's also unclear how much speed, agility and leaping ability he lost. And there's still the question of whether he can find a productive place in a passing game, that, after a few tweaks, became a juggernaut without him late last season.
It's perhaps remarkable what Graham accomplished last year considering he played most of the year with a sprained shoulder. He finished second among tight ends in receptions and touchdowns and fifth in receiving yards. But thanks to the injury, he averaged a career-low 10.5 yards per catch as his production fell dramatically even though he had just one fewer reception than in 2013. He was routinely jammed at the line, struggled to fight through double-teams and was accused of "alligator arms" because he couldn't fully extend to catch passes. As a result, his targets of 20-plus yards and receptions of 25-plus yards both fell by 10, and his long-distance scores dropped from five to one. The shoulder healed with offseason rest, but the concern this year is the blockbuster trade to the league's most run-heavy offense in Seattle. The Seahawks likely will use him as a wide receiver at least as much, if not more, than the Saints, creating mismatches on defensive backs with his size (6-7, 265) and on linebackers with his speed (4.56). And Russell Wilson will take advantage of Graham's 38.5-inch vertical at the goal line, as Graham has turned 27 receptions inside the 10-yard line the last four years into a league-leading 23 touchdowns. But while double-digit touchdowns seem within reach, Graham's opportunities for yards won't be as plentiful going from the league's second-ranked offense in attempts to the 32nd.
Graham is almost a tight end in name only. So much so, in fact, he asked an arbitrator to declare him a wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes. Graham lined up in the slot on 67 percent of his snaps last season, led the league in receiving touchdowns and averaged more fantasy points per game, 13.6, than all but four wide receivers. He was one of seven players – and the only tight end – to top 100 receiving yards in six games, and he was the only player in the league with two receiving touchdowns in five games. Graham is a freak athlete who thrives on mismatches. At 6-7, 265, he is too big for defensive backs, and his 4.56 speed is too fast for linebackers. Add a 38.5-inch vertical and gigantic hands that thumb to pinkie measure 10-5/8 inches (nearly the length of an 11-inch NFL football tip to tip) and it's easy to see why he's such a force. He's nearly unstoppable at the goal line, scoring a position-leading six touchdowns inside the 10-yard line last season and 17 in the last three years, tied with wide receiver Wes Welker for the most in the NFL. Drew Brees' accuracy is a bonus, as is playing in one of the league's most prolific passing attacks, which ensures a high volume of targets. After 143 last season (25 more than the next closest tight end), he has 427 targets the last three years, sixth in the NFL. The only knock on Graham is that he doesn't like contact, and a physical defense can slow him. Perhaps, but that strategy hasn't worked too often. In the last three years over 47 games, he's only had six games with less than 50 yards and no touchdowns.
While Graham failed to live up to 2011's lofty expectations, he still had an impressive season. He nearly topped 1,000 yards receiving in 15 games, and his nine touchowns were only two off his previous season's pace. His 135 targets ranked second among tight ends, though his per-target average dipped 1.5 yards last season.
While part of his regression from 2011 was probably due to missing coach and offensive mastermind Sean Payton, a bigger factor was a nagging wrist injury during the second half of the season; after scoring eight touchdowns in his first nine games, he scored only once more – in Week 17. The wrist also contributed to an NFL-high 14 dropped passes. Graham underwent wrist surgery in January and should be ready for the start of the season.
An athletic player, Graham uses his 6-7 frame to go up and get the ball in traffic. He also has enough speed to outrun opposing defenses as evidenced by his 32 catches of 20-plus yards the last two seasons. It also helps to have an accurate passer in Drew Brees, who for the second consecutive season attempted more passes to Graham than anyone else on the team.
This space last season said Graham had the potential to be a top-five tight end, but even that underestimated his upside. Graham proved himself an elite tight end, rivaled only by New England’s all-world Rob Gronkowski, as Graham led the position with 99 receptions. His 1,310 receiving yards was, by 17 yards, second only to Gronkowski’s record-setting total, as were his 18 catches of 20-plus yards and his 11 touchdowns. A former college basketball player, Graham is virtually uncoverable. He can use his 6-7, 265-pound frame in traffic whether covered by a linebacker, defensive back or both. In the open field, he’s big enough to go through linebackers and fast enough with 4.5 speed to run away from defensive backs. His route running improved during the season, though his ability to read defenses and find the soft spots in the zone is still developing. Graham is obviously in a great situation as the top target in the prolific New Orleans offense. He never saw fewer than seven targets in a game last year, and his 149 targets ranked fifth among all receivers, 23 more than the next closest tight end. In the red zone, he led all tight ends with 28 targets, and his 13 targets inside the 10-yard line were second only to Aaron Hernandez’s 17.
A converted basketball player, Graham played one season of football at the University of Miami but showed enough potential that the Saints used a third-round pick on him in 2010. And he showed enough promise as a rookie last year that the Saints let starter Jeremy Shockey walk this offseason, setting up Graham for a potential breakout. A behemoth of tight end at 6-8, 260, Graham came on for the Saints over the second half of last season, posting 26 receptions, 307 yards and five touchdowns in his final eight games. In significantly fewer snaps, he racked up 43 targets to Shockey's 59 and saw nine red-zone targets to Shockey's 10. With the position all to himself this season in one of the NFL's most explosive offenses, Graham has the upside to be a top-5 tight end.
Graham was drafted by the Saints in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft. A physical specimen, Graham has all the tools to become an elite tight end in the NFL. The kicker: Graham only played one season of football at the University of Miami. While in college, Graham spent four years on the Hurricane's basketball team. Still, his raw talent was enough to earn him a spot in the NFL Draft and reminded many top executives of Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, two similar basketball-turned-football players, even if Graham might be a year or two away from fantasy-relevance.