2015 Fantasy Football: Bayou to Northwest A Jimmy Graham story
In another blockbuster trade in this fantasy football limbo time we are experiencing, the New Orleans Saints traded stud tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks just minutes into the officially start of the 2015 NFL season. Much like LeSean McCoy being traded to the Bills less than a week before, this move shakes up so many levels of the fantasy football world.
Here is how Graham from the Bayou to the Pacific Northwest will ripple through the fantasy world:
1. Jimmy Graham
If there is a ripple effect in fantasy football then Jimmy Graham is the rock hitting the water. Graham is elite talent at one of the thinner fantasy positions, and this move shouldn't move him out of the top 2 tight ends along with Gronk. Over the last 4 seasons Graham has finished 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 3rd among TEs. His end of season point totals those years (197 in 2011,152 in 2012, 217 in 2013, and 148 last season) would have made him no worse than a WR2 in 2012 & 2014, while in 2011 & 2013 he would have finished as a top 5 WR with his monstrous stats. His 217 point season just two-years removed is only the second season in NFL history in which a tight end scored 200+ points (Gronk posted 240 in 2011). However even the freshest fantasy football player knows that Graham is a dominant force at the position and in line ups, so let's dive into how the guys around (and now not around) Jimmy Graham will be affected.
2. The New Orleans Saints
It's no secret that the Saints are going to miss Graham. Drew Brees is an elite quarterback and has made virtually any pass catcher he's played with, especially in New Orleans, a viable threat. In today's NFL wide receivers can be plugged in and used effectively more than ever before in the history of the game, so many would think tight ends would be the same. Unfortunately that's not the case. To see a TE of the Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski caliber is extremely rare. Graham was Brees’ leading touchdown catcher in 3 of the last 4 years, and the year he was passed was 2012 when he scored 9 times while Marques Colston reached pay dirt 10 times. Over those 4 seasons combined Jimmy Graham scored 46 touchdowns. Second over that period was Colston who scored 28. Let those numbers sink in, 46 scores by Graham while the Saints top wide receiver scored just 28 times over the same span. Before Graham became the every game starter at tight end in 2011, Brees had Jeremy Shockey as his top TE. Shockey never had a season with more than 569 yards and he topped out at 3TDs as a season best in his three years with Brees in New Orleans. Even when Graham was Shockey’s back up in 2010, Jimmy scored 2 more touchdowns, and finished just 48 yards behind Jeremy while starting just 5 games compared to the 11 for Shockey. The 2 seasons Brees played with the Saints before Shockey arrived, 2006 & 2007, Drew had 4 tight ends he threw to over those 32 games. No TE finished a season with more than 380 yards and 2TDs in a season was the best they could manage.
Josh Hill is the current top option on the Saints roster at TE to replace Graham. Hill has played 2 NFL seasons, recording 6 catches for 44 yards and 1TD in 2013. Last season he saw his numbers climb to 14 grabs for 176 yards and 5 scores. Could Hill be a viable fill in? Sure he could. He has nice size (6’5” 229lbs) and is currently the biggest target on New Orleans roster. With two 1st round picks in the draft now, the Saints could realistically target someone like Maxx Williams who looks to be a future stud at the positon. Williams is a big boy (6’4” 250lbs) out of Minnesota with good hands, and vertical speed (4.78 40 yard dash at combine) for a man of his stature. He caught 82% of his college passes for either a 1st down or touchdown. The Saints could also try to lure in an NFL vet who has shown flashes in the league already like Jordan Cameron (just two years removed from a season that saw him go 80-917-7) or Jermaine Gresham (who’s averaged 56-554-5 over his 5 professional seasons). Brees would be the best QB any of those guys have played with and it’s not even close.
If the Saints decide to use Hill as their main TE they still have a plethora of talent at wide receiver. Marques Colston is starting to get up in age will be 32 to start 2015, and his numbers have seen a drop off the last 2 seasons. He has failed to hit 1,000 yards or more than 5TDs in both 2013 and 2014. The only 2 years he’s played 15 or more games and failed to reach those numbers. However he is the guy Brees has the most experience with so he should see a slight increase in targets which should equate to more production on the field and in your fantasy line up. The Saints also have two young wide outs that need to take a step up this year with Graham gone, Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks. Stills is entering that key fantasy year 3 for wide receivers. Last season Stills saw his targets increase by 66% from his rookie season in 2013. He nearly doubled his catches (32 to 63), and he saw a 45% hike in yardage (641 to 931). His TDs dipped from 5 to 3 but touchdowns are the one element in fantasy football that are the hardest to predict, so the fact he's garnered huge increases in targets, catches, and yards shows a lot of promise for this big 3rd season. Cooks is entering his 2nd NFL season in 2015. Last year he was seen as a speedster who could go vertical but also come across the middle and run short route that he could take for long gains with his speed. He did not disappoint and burst onto the scene during kickoff weekend with 7 grabs for 77 yards and a score. While he did only play 10 games after breaking his thumb, he caught 77% of his targets (53 of 69) for 550 yards and 3 scores. Cooks also added in 7 carries for 73 yards and another touchdown. In the year of the rookie WR in 2014, Cooks was just another cog in that machine that flashed tons of future potential and with Drew Brees needing someone he can unload the ball quickly too with Graham gone, look for Cooks to be that guy.
3. The Seattle Seahawks
It stands to reason that Russell Wilson gets the biggest value boost because of this trade. Wilson has been improving year after year since entering the league in 2012. He has increased his end of year fantasy ranking each season, going from a 11th place finish among QBs in 2012 to 10th in 2013 and finally a 6th place finish last . Yes he finished with more points than guys with better weapons like Matthew Stafford (16th) and Matt Ryan (7th). Wilson finished ahead of solid vets at the position who always tend to be every week starters in the fantasy world like Philip Rivers (9th) and Tom Brady (11th). Wilson’s ADP last year was at the top of the 8th round, the 13th QB off the board. With what we saw Wilson do with a below average passing attack he made up for with his wheels, rushing for 849 yards, an astronomical number for the position. In fact since 2000 only times has a QB topped the 700 yard plateau, Vick did it 3 times with 796 in 2002, 902 in 2004, and 1039 in 2006. Cam Newton did it twice with 706 in 2011 and 741 in 2012. Finally Robert Griffin III in 2012 with 833. Not only will Graham give Wilson a huge, in size and talent, lift in the passing game but also open up more lanes for Russell to rush down. Graham will also be the best receiver Wilson has ever played with. Last year the best pass catchers numbers in Seattle read: 66-825-3. That was Doug Baldwin, good enough to finish 47th among WRs, barely good enough to be an every week flex play. Wilson’s best target in his 3 NFL years was Golden Tate in 2013. That year Tate had 64 grabs for 898 yards and 5TDs, placing him 28th among WRs, or a solid WR3 for the season. Tate obviously flourished in Detroit last year with Megatron across from him, so maybe he is fitted to be a 2, but that's a story for another time. Not only do Graham's catches, yards, and touchdowns embarrass Seahawk wide outs, but he has the size to be a red zone threat Wilson has never seen either. Imagine being a defensive planning a goal line stand with Graham running routes, Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, and the ever dangerous Wilson who can throw a laser or bootleg it in himself. Speaking of Marshawn
Mr. Lynch is going to benefit in a big way from Mr. Graham's arrival as well. The loss of Max Unger in the Graham trade will hurt a Seahawks line that was 19th according to ProFootballFocus.com in 2014, although that was a step up from their 27th place finish the year prior. Unger played just 385 snaps in 2014, well under his average of 1046 snaps in his previous 3 seasons. That being said, even if the O-line suffers a little Graham will demand double coverage at all times, and with Wilson’s mobility teams can’t just throw the entire defense at Seattle. With Graham getting that extra attention from linebackers, corners, and safeties that opens up lanes for Lynch like it does Wilson. Lynch is arguably the most violent runner in the game today and we don’t call him Beastmode for nothing so he can continue to break through defensive lines like he has been, but how much more can we expect from Lynch if there is another player potentially missing quite frequently from the middle of the field? Last year Lynch had the best Elusive rating among RBs on ProFootballFocus.com at 94.3. Long story short that factors in forced missed tackle both rushing and receiving and yards after contact, and even more perspective on that number, second among RBs was the Packers Eddie Lacy at 71.6. If Lynch has less tackles to break that’s just more room to run and build steam. Marshawn has hit at least 1200 yards and 11TDs in each of his 4 full seasons with the Hawks. He’s finished 5th, 4th, 4th, and 3rd the last 4 years among RBs in terms of fantasy points at years end averaging 1339 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground with 31 catches for 272 yards and 2 more scores. Don’t be shocked to see those receiving numbers dip slightly this year, but he should be able to hit those averages on the ground if not better because of Graham and how he stretches defenses.
Finally the Seattle WRs. While Graham will help open up the pass game overall, the wide outs are the one group I could see not benefiting on the same level as Wilson and Lynch. OF course when teams roll a safety onto Graham then we could see Baldwin or Kearse make a big play, but these guys are WR3s or potential flex plays for a reason. Baldwin will still be in his 800 yards and 4TDs area, maybe a little extra on some deep passes, while Kearse should be in that 450 yard and 2TD area. Again serviceable if you need a WR late in your draft (Baldwin) or are looking for a flex play during your bye weeks (Kearse).
Jimmy Graham going from Brees to Wilson is barely a downgrade if one at all. Brees is on his way out of the NFL while Wilson has shown why he is the future face of the league when the Brees’, Brady's, and Manning's of the world retire. Graham's fantasy value remains the same, a top 2 tight end off the board with Rob Gronkowski. The Saints WRs, Still and Cooks in particular, should see a nice increase in production with Graham's 125 targets needing to go somewhere. The TE situation in New Orleans is a bigger question mark right now. Josh Hill could be usable during bye weeks, and maybe become an every week option but can't say that with certainty today. If the Saints draft Maxx Williams or sign a bigger free agent then the Saints TE will definitely be worth drafting in the mid to late rounds in 2015. The Seahawks 2 main fantasy studs Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch should see increases in their already superb fantasy numbers with Graham in town. Don’t be shocked to see this 3-headed fantasy monster all finish in the top 3 at their respective positions. Much like the McCoy deal we won’t know what we have in Seattle until we see the draft and camp play out, but overall more pros in Seattle’s fantasy skyline than in New Orleans’ for the 2015 season.