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Seahawks consider this pivotal season for tight end Jimmy Graham

Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham had 65 receptions last year, including this grab against his former team, New Orleans. (Bill Feig / Associated Press)
Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham had 65 receptions last year, including this grab against his former team, New Orleans. (Bill Feig / Associated Press)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Asked in June to evaluate how tight end Jimmy Graham has fit in with the Seahawks during his first two seasons, coach Pete Carroll delivered a response that surely raised a few eyebrows.

“Gosh, I think it’s been awesome,’’ Carroll said.

Carroll, of course, tends to see the bright side of things (it’s possible he even liked the Ed Sheeran appearance in “Game of Thrones”).

But Carroll then went on at length (218 words’ worth, to be exact) about how he thinks Graham has not only been a good fit so far, despite a lot of Hot Takes protesting otherwise, but will be an even better one in 2017.

“He’s had a beautiful offseason, so I think we should expect to get even more out of that moving forward,’’ Carroll said.

Carroll’s comment was a reference to the fact that Graham is healthy this year compared to last season, when he was coming off a patella-tendon injury.

“He was just trying to get to camp and get healthy (last season),’’ Carroll said.

So to the team, the fact that Graham set Seahawks team records for most catches (65) and receiving yards (923) by a tight end in a season was, all things considered, just fine in 2016, even if to some observers it still seemed a little underwhelming (no matter that he had the third-most receiving yards of any tight end in the NFL).

But now, with Graham in his third year in the system, healthy, and entering a contract year that should erase any questions of motivation (in case any exist), one of the big questions for the Seahawks in 2017 is whether this is the season when he finally turns in the kinds of numbers that were expected when he was acquired in 2015.

It’s worth a reminder that no one in the organization really figured that Graham would put up anywhere near the same numbers he did with the Saints, where he had 85 or more catches (with a high of 99) in his final four seasons while also twice topping the 1,200-yard mark (with a high of 1,310).

Seattle doesn’t pass as much as the Saints, and while the Seahawks threw more last season than any year in the Russell Wilson era, the hope is that a beefed-up running game will bring them back to a more usual-looking run-pass ratio in 2017 (Seattle threw it 59 percent last season after not being higher than 53 percent any of the previous four years).

But if the Seahawks won’t necessarily look for Graham to catch a ton more passes than last season, what they would like is for more of them to come in the red zone.

“Not quite as productive as we thought we could be,’’ Carroll said in June. “That’s a big area of focus for us now.’’

Graham caught six touchdowns last season, second on the team to the seven of Doug Baldwin and up from two in his initial Seahawks season of 2015.

But he caught nine or more each of his last four years with the Saints, and that’s a stat the Seahawks think he could replicate in Seattle.

Much was made after the season that Graham had just four passes thrown his way inside the 10-yard line last season, which according to a breakdown from Warren Sharp’s 2017 Football Preview was tied with Paul Richardson for third on the team behind the 11 of Jermaine Kearse and 10 of Baldwin.

Sharp’s breakdown, though, showed that the Seahawks did try to get Graham the ball a lot inside the 20 – he had a team-high 21 passes thrown to him from the 11-20 yard lines, far more than anyone else on the team (Baldwin was next with 12) for a total of 25 red-zone targets that was also the most on the team (Baldwin had 22, followed by Kearse with 18).

But then there were also instances like the final play against the Saints, when the Seahawks had one shot from the 10 to win it. New Orleans doubled Graham, compelling Wilson to instead throw to Kearse, who was left in single coverage against a backup cornerback.

Kearse caught the pass, but his foot was just out of bounds, and Seattle lost 25-20. Had Seattle won the game, some might have pointed to that play as an example of the kind of impact Graham could have even without getting a pass thrown his way by creating favorable matchups elsewhere, something the Seahawks talked about when they got him.

But the Seahawks also know that ultimately they aren’t paying Graham to be a decoy.

This is the last season on Graham’s contract, making this a critical year for both sides.

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