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Next-Gen Stats: How did the Seahawks unlock Jimmy Graham?

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» Better receiver from the Class of 2011: A.J. Green or Julio Jones?

» An explanation for Jimmy Graham's renaissance.

» Keys to playing good defense in today's pass-happy NFL.

NEXT-GEN STATS: How did the Seahawks unlock Jimmy Graham?

After watching Jimmy Graham post back-to-back 100-yard games for the Seattle Seahawks, I couldn't help but wonder why it took so long for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to figure out a way to get the three-time Pro Bowl tight end more involved in an offense that desperately needed a big-bodied option on the perimeter.

That's not a slight to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse or Tyler Lockett and their contributions to the Seahawks' offense, but Graham is arguably one of the most potent pass-catching tight ends in NFL history, as evidenced by his ridiculous production from 2011 to 2014, when he averaged 89 catches for 1,099 yards and 12 touchdowns per season. Most importantly, he can dominate the game as a "move" tight end (versatile Y-receiver) and create mismatches on the perimeter with his gigantic physical dimensions (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) and athleticism. As a former college basketball player, Graham is a box-out specialist with exceptional athleticism and leaping ability. He tracks down 50-50 balls like they're rebounds, exhibiting outstanding strength, body control and balance pinning defenders to his hip while extending with one or two hands. Graham's unique ability to track and adjust to slightly off-target balls makes him a dynamic weapon in the red zone and an effective "chain mover" between the 20s.

Considering how Graham dominated the NFL in New Orleans, I thought the Seahawks were wise to make the deal when they had a chance to exchange a first-round pick and Max Unger for the big-bodied pass catcher in March 2015 -- especially with running back Marshawn Lynch nearing the end of his career and the Seahawks expected to transition into a pass-first offense built around franchise quarterback Russell Wilson. Despite the diminutive quarterback's propensity for delivering explosive plays while on the run, the team needed a big target to anchor the passing game and command double-teams, to create opportunities for the rest of the playmakers on the perimeter.

That's why I couldn't understand the Seahawks' failure to get the prized addition untracked before his season-ending torn patellar tendon in the middle of the 2015 campaign. Graham finished the season with just 48 receptions for 605 yards (12.6 yards per catch) and two scores in 11 games. That's a far cry from the sensational numbers (386 receptions for 4,752 and 51 touchdowns in 78 games) he posted as the focal point of the Saints' passing game. Although the yards-per-catch mark from 2015 (12.6) was nearly identical to that over his Saints career (12.3), I was surprised by the Seahawks' under-utilization of a proven impact player.

Looking at the numbers from the first two games of the 2016 season, Graham appeared to be confined to a role as a complementary player in the passing game. Against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 and the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2, he mustered a total of 53 receiving yards on four receptions. Considering the team was adjusting to life without Lynch, the lack of production was mystifying to me, based on how he could alter the way defenses attacked the Seahawks. Since Week 3, though, the Seahawks have made a more concerted effort to get Graham involved in the offense, and the Next-Gen Stats suggest the team tweaked its personnel groupings to generate better matchups for the TE1.

During the first two weeks of the season, the Seahawks only aligned in "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) on seven total snaps with Graham on the field. The team leaned heavily on its "11" personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) during those weeks, particularly in Week 2 against the Rams, when the Seahawks used the grouping on 44 of his 50 total plays. The emphasis on the three-wide package could be partly attributed to Wilson's success in spread formations down the stretch in 2015, or maybe the desire to get the ultra-talented Lockett on the field as a WR3.

Regardless, the increased use of "11" personnel pitted Graham and his crew against nickel and dime defenses (five or six defensive backs) instead of base personnel. With so many hybrid safeties and extra cornerbacks on the field, Graham's speed advantage was neutralized, and he was unable to stretch the field as a vertical threat down the seams or boundary. This virtually eliminated his big-play potential and made him a non-factor in the passing game for the Seahawks.

Following a loss to the Rams in Week 2, coach Pete Carroll and the offensive staff must've gotten together and determined that the best way to get the big-bodied playmaker more looks was to force the defense to play "big-boy football" against the "12" and "13" personnel (1 RB, 3 TE and 1 WR) sets. By putting more tight ends on the field, the Seahawks force defensive coordinators to keep their "bigs" (defensive linemen and linebackers) out there, which creates a sizable advantage for Graham in the passing game.

Since Week 3, the Seahawks have used "12" or "13" personnel on 57.3 percent of Graham's total plays (47 of 82). Considering the various run-heavy formations that can be created out of this package, defensive play callers must stay in base personnel or run the risk of being hammered by an offense that doesn't mind playing in a phone booth.

Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I noticed that the Seahawks used a wide variety of formations from their "12" package with Luke Willson (TE2) aligning as a fullback, H-back or tight end in the set. The constant reshuffling poses a problem for the defense, but the threat of the offense aligning in jumbo formations prevents the defense from shuttling defensive backs on the field. With Graham's combination of athleticism and agility overwhelming linebacker types, the Seahawks have started to reap the rewards from their marquee acquisition.

Wilson also has benefitted from the team spicing up the game plan with more heavy sets featuring Graham as a centerpiece. In the past two games, the quarterback has connected on 69.1 percent of his passes, averaged 276 passing yards and posted a 4:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, he has compiled a 125.7 passer rating and helped an offense that only scored one touchdown during the first two weeks of the season find pay dirt seven times and average 32.0 points in the past two games.

The reintroduction of the long ball also has factored into Graham's rebirth. He has been used on more vertical routes in recent weeks, with tremendous success. While watching the tape, I noticed that he has run more seam routes and post-corners from an attached alignment (next to the offensive tackle) or in the slot in Weeks 3 and 4. Those downfield routes against overmatched linebackers have netted big gains for the Seahawks' offense, as evidenced by the air-yards-per-reception marks in each of those games (15.7 in Week 3 and 13.5 in Week 4). With Graham snagging 11 of 16 targets for 196 yards and a touchdown from tight (attached) or slot alignments over the past two games, the Seahawks' evolving personnel tactics and renewed long-ball emphasis have helped Graham finally emerge as an impact player in the passing game.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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