Make the case: To re-sign Jimmy Graham or Paul Richardson

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This upcoming offseason is going to be an interesting one for John Schneider. There’s decisions to be made on Frank Clark, Sheldon Richardson and Luke Joeckel, to name a few. The futures of both Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor are up in the air, however their decisions will likely be out of Schneider’s hands. Like any great team, re-tooling will need to be done to keep the rest of the roster competitive. Then, there’s a big decision looming on the offensive side of the ball. Two of the Seattle Seahawks’ three best pass catchers will be free agents, with both Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson set to hit the open market.

It’s highly unlikely both players are retained by Seattle, especially with new deals for both Clark and Sheldon Richardson on the horizon. The Seahawks will be faced with a decision: Either bring back a 25-year old receiver who’s only just hitting his stride as an NFL player, or a 31-year old tight end who’s only just started being used properly. It’s a decision that will have major implications to Seattle’s salary cap situation and more importantly, their offense.

With Tyler Lockett struggling to regain his rookie form and a running game that’s little more than a theory, whoever is brought back between Graham and Richardson will have to play like a good-to-great offense’s number two option. Graham has been far more than that previously in his career, and has consistently been exactly that for the Seahawks over the last two seasons. Richardson, on the other hand, has proven to be a reliable outside wide receiver in 2017, after struggling to establish himself in their offense over the first three years of his career. It’s a decision that won’t be made for several months, but it’s looming nonetheless.

The case for re-signing Jimmy Graham

In Graham’s short time in Seattle, he’s suffered a major knee injury, been the subject of trade rumors, set franchise records, and regained his status as one of the game’s elite touchdown makers. His first year with the team started slowly, catching just 21 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the first five games. Then, against the Carolina Panthers, the light flicked on. Catching eight passes for 140 yards, Graham seemed to finally get ‘it’ in the Seahawks’ passing game, gaining chunks of yardage after working back to Russell Wilson in the scramble drill. That’s an important piece of any Seattle pass catcher’s game, and it was a big step to see Graham start to mesh with Wilson. Despite the encouraging sign, Graham’s next five games weren’t any better, catching fewer passes (19) for 261 yards and zero touchdowns before tearing his patellar tendon against the Pittsburgh Steelers, ending his season.

In a testament to his competitive toughness, Graham made it back in time for week one of his second season in Seattle, exceeding 100 yards in two of the first four games. By season’s end, Graham had set a new franchise record for single-season highs in both receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. He finished second in DYAR among tight ends and was named to his fourth Pro Bowl. Although he was setting franchise records and establishing himself in the Seahawks’ offense, he still wasn’t affecting the game where he has the ability to the most: in the red zone. Graham was targeted just 20 times inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, catching eight balls for 100 yards and four touchdowns — a far cry from the player who averaged over 10 touchdowns a season in five years with the New Orleans Saints.

Entering the final year of his contract, a lot was made of Graham’s red zone usage and with good reason, following a season in which Jermaine Kearse led the team in targets inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. He began the year slowly, posting a worse stat line in the first five games of the 2017 season than he did to begin 2015, catching just 21 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown. With the team desperate for offensive line help, his name started being brought up in trade rumors — even leading Pete Carroll to assure him it was nonsense prior to a thrilling victory over the Houston Texans. More importantly was over that time, Seattle began using him correctly, isolating him in the red zone and allowing him to be the physically dominant player he is. Since week six, Graham’s caught 28 passes for 268 yards and seven touchdowns. He leads the NFL in red zone receptions, targets and touchdowns. He’s second in yards and target percentage inside the opponent’s 20. He’s being used on shallow fades as well as slants, allowing him to get his massive frame in front of defenders, winning the route before the ball is even released. His value is higher than ever since the trade to the Seahawks, at just the right time.

The case for re-signing Paul Richardson

Much like Jimmy Graham, Paul Richardson’s start in Seattle was less than ideal. He started slowly before coming on at the end of his rookie season, gaining over 60-percent of his yardage in the last month of the season. Heading into the playoffs he was shaping up as the Seahawks’ best receiver before a knee injury ended his year against the Panthers. His sophomore season was a setback; he played just six snaps, suffering a season-ending hamstring injury in week 10, his one and only game of the season — on a 40-yard reception.

If his second season was a setback, his third was simply discouraging. Finally healthy, playing in 15 games, but ending the season with an uninspiring 21 catches for 288 yards and a lone touchdown. His penchant for big plays was again flashed in Seattle’s home playoff win over the Detroit Lions, as he hauled in a ridiculous you-have-no-business-catching-that one-handed touchdown. And so he entered 2017 similarly to the previous two seasons; a tantalizing prospect, but ultimately underwhelming.

In 2017, Richardson has made the transformation from a deep-threat receiver with injury problems to a legitimate starting outside receiver. He’s winning on a variety of routes – becoming a run after catch threat on digs over the deep middle that the Seahawks love so much – and has a great understanding of the scramble drill with Wilson. His big play ability remains a real threat, but he’s added a technical side to his game that was missing. In 11 games this season, Richardson has caught 35 balls for 584 yards and five touchdowns – all career highs – ranking ninth in DYAR among wide receivers, and perhaps most importantly he has already played more snaps than in any of his previous three seasons. Like Graham, Richardson is having his best season in Seattle at exactly the right time, making the question of cost an interesting one.

Question of cost

Like the majority of moves cash-strapped contenders make, it’s going to come down to money for Richardson, Graham and the Seahawks. The decision may be made for Seattle; if a team with a large amount of cap space and not much roster talent comes and offers either one of them above market value, then it will be hard for the Seahawks to match it. But if given the choice, which deal makes more sense for Seattle?

When Jimmy Graham and the Saints ended their franchise tag saga and agreed to a four-year, $40 million extension in 2014, they were setting the market at the tight end position. The problem is, it has since stagnated. Despite signing his extension three offseasons ago, Graham remains the highest paid tight end in the league in 2017. The other four highest paid players at his position by average per year (Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, Rob Gronkowski and Zach Ertz) all signed extensions in 2016, with the exception of Gronkowski. In an incredibly rare instance for the NFL, new money hasn’t surpassed (relatively) old money; Graham’s APY is higher than all four players, and his guaranteed money is within $1 million of all four. Re-signing Graham wouldn’t force the Seahawks to reset the market or break the bank. At age 31, the length of the deal should be the only concern for Seattle. A two-year deal, in the neighborhood of $7 million per year would be a great move for the Seahawks.

Unlike the tight end position, the wide receiver market has grown considerably in recent years. Players in Richardson’s situation have hit the open market and gotten great paydays — the kind that could, and perhaps should, price Richardson out of Seattle. In the last two years, four receivers comparable to Richardson have gotten new deals: Travis Benjamin, Mohamed Sanu, Kenny Stills and Robert Woods. With the exception of Stills, all of them had moderate success on their original deals before moving on in free agency (Stills was traded to Miami in 2015 and signed an extension in 2017).

In 2016, Benjamin received four years, $24 million with $13 million guaranteed from the L.A. Chargers, while Sanu went to Atlanta after signing a five-year, $32.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed with the Falcons. In 2017, Stills re-signed with the Dolphins for $32 million over four years, getting $18.95 million guaranteed; Woods went from the Buffalo Bills to the L.A. Rams, signing a five-year deal worth $34 million, $10 million of which was guaranteed. The 51-catch, 850-yard and seven touchdown pace Richardson is on in 2017 is arguably better than any season the four comparable receivers had prior to signing their new deals. At a minimum, it’s safe to ballpark a potential Richardson deal at four years, $31 million with $14 million guaranteed. An APY of $7.75 million would be close to any potential Graham contract this offseason. The money is nearly a match, so it comes down to team preference, assuming the Seahawks don’t get blown out of the water in free agency.

The decision

Jimmy Graham’s 2017 has been the first true glimpse of the player Seattle traded for. A physically dominant, matchup nightmare, who’s a threat to score anytime the Seahawks are inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. His eight receiving touchdowns rank second in the NFL, behind just Antonio Brown, and he figures to be about as cheap as any team could get an All-NFL touchdown maker for on the open market. Graham’s been a reliable second option for two straight seasons, as well as finally re-adding the aforementioned red zone dominance to his game. In his age 32 and 33 seasons, Tony Gonzalez caught 16 touchdowns. Not to compare one of the all-time greats to Graham, but the ability to box out a defender and produce touchdowns consistently won’t simply disappear from Graham’s game — giving him a (short) new deal at age 31 isn’t a huge risk by any means.

Additionally, Graham’s fully bought into Wilson and Seattle’s mentality. His relationship with Wilson on and off of the field is something that absolutely matters — especially when it translates to daggers straight into their opponent’s hearts on Sundays. Following the trade of Jermaine Kearse, the onus was put on Richardson to step up and be a reliable starting receiver for the first time in his career, and he has done just that. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, he’s likely priced himself out of the Seattle’s plans along the way. Elite touchdown makers are rare and incredibly difficult to acquire; the Seahawks have one in Graham and they would be smart to extend that relationship another couple years.

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