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What is Wrong With Jimmy Graham?

With just 21 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns through five games, Jimmy Graham is hardly making a big impact in Seattle. Consider that over his last four years in New Orleans, he averaged 5.6 receptions, 69.7 yards and 0.73 touchdowns per game, while he is at 4.2, 40.8, and 0.4 in those metrics, respectively, so far with the Seahawks.

So what’s wrong? Well, let’s start by focusing just on receiving yards. The drop from 69.7 to 40.8 is quite significant, but is there one main factor driving it? We can break receiving yards down into several components. For example, we can parse out four different metrics from simple receiving yards:

Receiving Yards = Team Pass Attempts * (Targets/Team Pass Attempt) * (Receptions/Target) * (Yards/Reception)

Let’s begin with Team Pass Attempts. From 2011 to 2014, the Saints averaged 41.3 pass attempts per game (excluding sacks). This was the area of biggest concern for Graham’s numbers entering the season, as since Russell Wilson entered the league, Seattle has averaged just 26.6 pass attempts per game (excluding sacks). Seattle has been a bit more pass-happy this year, although that number has only increased to 30.0 passes per game.1

To put it another way, Seattle is only passing 73% as frequently as the Saints did. To put it a third way, Graham’s gaining about 29 fewer receiving yards per game this year, but 19 of those yards are due to his team passing less often. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

Targets per Team Pass Attempt

Graham was not a target monster in New Orleans, in part because the Saints frequently threw to the running backs.2 so From 2011 to 2014, he averaged 21.1% of New Orleans targets in his 63 games. This year, Graham has seen 18.7% of Seattle targets.3

I’m not sure if that’s a big shock, as the Seattle receivers are probably better than the Saints receivers of recent years. But given all the passes to running backs that drove down Graham’s average, it is still a little surprising. Graham has 28 targets, while Doug Baldwin (27) and Jermaine Kearse (23) are in the same ballpark, and even rookie Tyler Lockett has seen 17 passes. Why isn’t Graham seeing more targets on a per-pass attempt basis? One answer that would make sense would be if he was running longer routes, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Graham’s average length of reception4 is coming just 5.52 yards downfield according to NFLGSIS. It was 7.05 in 2014, 9.51 in 2013, 7.95 in 2012, and 8.62 in 2011. That is a pretty significant decline, but if Graham is running shorter routes, one would think he would be targeted more frequently, not less.

This isn’t necessarily Graham’s fault — blame may lie with Russell Wilson or the system/coaching staff — but it is simply not a wise allocation of resources to give Graham $8,000,000 this year and barely use him more than Baldwin ($4.5M) or Kearse ($2.4M). That’s doubly true given that Seattle is turning him from an explosive player into a safety valve. But we’ll get to that in a moment…

Receptions/Target

Going from Drew Brees to Russell Wilson is a reason to expect Graham’s reception per target average to drop, but running shorter routes should counter that. How does that battle play out here? Well, Graham converted 64.5% of his targets into receptions with the Saints from ’11 to ’14, but is at 75% right now. But that advantage is wiped out by our next category, as due to a low average gain per catch, Graham is actually average fewer yards per target now (7.3) than he did during his last four years in New Orleans (7.9).

Yards per Reception

Graham averaged 13.2, 11.6, 14.1, and 10.5 yards per reception during his final four seasons with the Saints; he’s at just 9.7 yards per catch right now. That decline is mostly due to seeing shorter throws — his average catch has dropped from 8.30 yards downfield with 4.15 yards of YAC to 5.52 and 4.19, respectively. With shorter passes he should be gaining more YAC, but that just hasn’t been the case.

Conclusion

The majority of Graham’s decline was probably to be expected: it’s based on Seattle simply throwing less often than New Orleans. But Graham is also (1) seeing fewer targets per pass play now than he did in New Orleans, and (2) gaining fewer yards per target. Graham has just four 15+ yard plays this year, after having 104 such plays in 63 games from 2011 to 2014. On a per-game basis, he’s producing less than half as many big plays now as he did in Seattle. That’s the biggest reason for his decline in numbers; the real question is whether or not he’s going to start making big plays again.

To that, I throw it to you guys…

  1. It is worth noting that we could also not exclude sacks from this analysis. Wilson has been dropped 4.4 times per game through five weeks, which is a significant number, especially compared to the low sack rate normally posted by Drew Brees. But that would just add a fifth variable to the analysis, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m leaving it out. []
  2. Which, of course, is one reason the Saints averaged 41.3 pass attempts per game. []
  3. One other potential explanation: according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Seattle Times), the Sehawks are keeping him in to block about 10% more often, which could potentially account for all of the delta in targets per team pass attempt. []
  4. While not a perfect proxy, this is a decent way to get a sense of the sort of routes he is running []
  • sacramento gold miners

    There are bad fits in sports, talented players who just never find the right role with their new team. John Jefferson with Green Bay comes to mind at the moment. Randy Moss was a disaster in Oakland. Sometimes the traded player didn’t want to leave the previous team, and Graham was in a great situation in New Orleans.

  • Will Durham

    It looked like a questionable fit to begin with, in some respects. He had the numbers, but isn’t the kind of physical presence the Seahawks are identified with. It’s early, he might find a groove but if not, it might be another Harvin mismatch that they can resolve this time with a trade.

  • Unlike the Harvin to Seattle move which I knew would be a disaster, Im genuinely surprised by this. I thought that Graham would become the guy they took their chances to down the field and he would have fit fine in this offense. His numbers were going to drop because they dont throw as much as New Orleans but I expected similar types on numbers when that was taken into account.

    For his salary he is an absolute waste, which you pointed out above. Seattle does manage a bit on the fantasy side with some of their pickups so maybe they really had no idea how to use him, but I wonder if there is more behind the scenes going on and he was just unhappy to go from New Orleans to Seattle. If that manifests itself in practice perhaps they just dont see the reason to use him more.

  • Trepur

    Graham goes from playing with a future first-round hall of fame QB to playing with a good not great passer on a team that’s offensive style isn’t really suited to his talents.

  • Tim Truemper

    Its early. Lets see down the road if they find a scheme they use on a regular basis that uses his skills better. Also, what is the indirect effect of his presence? Is he making things easier on the other receivers by drawing attention? Also, Wilson’s pass protection is abysmal. Are routes for Graham shorter to allow for this offensive shortcoming?