Spread Thin Finding passes for Jimmy Graham and crew

By Brian Nemhauser

Add a player who can catch 100 passes to a formidable Seahawks running game and now you have something lethal. That is the common line of thinking for many Seahawks fans when they imagine a player like Jimmy Graham joining the ranks of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. The truth is that no player on a team coached by Pete Carroll is going to catch anything approaching a hundred passes. No Seahawks receiver in the past three seasons has even been targeted 100 times, let alone caught that many. Graham's addition to the Seahawks offense may prove to be lethal, but it will not be because he gets anywhere near the number of chances he has so far in his career.


The top five players in the NFL last season by number of receptions were:

  1. Antonio Brown - 129
  2. Demaryius Thomas - 111
  3. Julio Jones - 104
  4. Matt Forte - 102
  5. Emmanuel Sanders - 101

They were the only players to eclipse the 100-reception mark. Of course, each player enjoys residency in a pass-centric system. This group was lavished with an average of 160.2 targets to get their 100+ receptions.

If you extend to the top fifteen pass catchers last year (technically sixteen due to a tie), there is still an average of 144.6 targets per player. Graham came in tied for 15th with 85 receptions, but more important was that he recorded those receptions with the fewest targets (124) of the group. Efficiency is paramount for anyone hoping to make hay in the Seahawks scheme.

Catching on in Seattle

The Seahawks have had three different players lead them in targets the past three years. Sidney Rice led the way in 2012, then Golden Tate, and finally Doug Baldwin last season. To get a better idea of how many chances a player like Graham could get, it is worth seeing what opportunities were given the top pass catchers in the Seahawks offense in recent history.

Seahawks Top 10 Pass Targets

Strip the names off the jerseys and just look at the shape of the pass distribution among the ten players who were targeted the most each of the last three seasons.

You can see that the top player tends to get between 20-24% of the throws. Tate was the most at just over 24% in 2013. That is one clue to look for. It is also worth noting the dropoff from #1 to #2 changes pretty drastically from 2012 to the past two seasons. Rice and Tate were far closer to equal targets back then, whereas the team has gone to a clear primary target in 2013 and 2014. The dropoff to #3 last season was far steeper than it had been in either 2013 or 2012.

The top ten receiving targets accounted for nearly all the passes thrown in 2013

The injury situation at receiver and tight end last year led to a greater distribution of passes across the roster. The top ten targets only accounted for about 90% of all throws, whereas the healthier 2013 crew took almost all the throws.

The average target total for the #1 receiver the past three years has been 93

You can see from this chart that the king of the Seahawks receiving hill is going to get less than 100 chances to make his mark. Getting 93 targets would represent a 25% decline in chances for Graham, compared to last season, and that was his lowest target total since his rookie year.

Graham has averaged 138 targets the last four years. No Seahawk has had more than 99.

All this assumes that Graham is going to get more targets than anyone else. Given his official designation as a tight end, that would represent a significant departure for the Seahawks.

Tight ends have not accounted for more than ~20% of Seahawks targets the past three years

Seattle may continue to call Graham a tight end since it helps from a salary comparison standpoint (TEs get paid less), but expect them to deploy him essentially as a receiver. He will get far more passes than Zach Miller ever did. At least, that has to be the assumption going in.

If a player like Baldwin continued to get the most targets, that would mean Graham was getting something closer to 70 targets. The two may split targets more the way Rice and Tate did in 2012. All this assumes Jermaine Kearse, Chris Matthews, Kevin Norwood, Tyler Lockett and the rest of the receivers will get fewer chances than either Baldwin or Graham.

The most targets for a pure tight end the past three years for Seattle was 56 by Miller in 2013. Luke Willson had 40 last year. It would be a shock to see Graham nearing those types of numbers. The team did not give up a former All-Pro center and a first round draft pick for him so he could get 50 targets a year.

Graham will need to make the most of his chances

Projecting Graham's Numbers

Assume Graham will be the top target this year and get somewhere around 100 targets. His career catch rate is 64.5%, which would put him at around 65 catches on the year. He catches a touchdown on about 13% of his receptions, which would have him at around 8-9 touchdowns if he caught 65 passes.

Baldwin caught 66 passes last year and Tate caught 64 the year before. Both are highly efficient receivers. We saw how taking an efficient receiver like Tate out of this offense and placing him a pass-centric system in Detroit boosted his numbers to a Pro Bowl level. We will now see the inverse where a player who most consider either the best or second best receiving tight end in the game is going to adjust to a run-centric offense.

Most casual observers will assume Graham has lost a step or is having an off year. They will be missing the real point. The quality of this Seahawks receiving crew is obscured by the scheme the team employs. Expect Graham to turn more of those targets into catches and touchdowns that players like Miller or Kearse. Judge him by what he does with his chances, not by the absolute numbers.

Created By
Brian Nemhauser

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