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Revisiting the Jimmy Graham Trade One Year Later

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Now that the 2015 NFL season is in the books, how did each team fare after the Jimmy Graham trade?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Before the 2015 season, Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for veteran Center Max Unger and the Seattle Seahawks’ first round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft (31st overall). To analyze the trade after only the first full season, we need to look at as many factors as possible.

I came up with this makeshift equation to account for as many factors as I could so we could compare each side of the trade:

(Net Increase/Decrease Value of Added Players to Saints Roster) – (Net Increase/Decrease of Traded Players from Saints Roster) vs (Net Increase/Decrease Value of Added Players to Seahawks Roster) – (Net Increase/Decrease of Traded Players from Seahawks Roster)

That means generally we compare what the Saints received, subtract what they gave up, and compare that to what the Seahawks received, minus what they gave up in the same trade. Simple enough, right? Sort of. We can't just look at the added players themselves, but what net increased or decreased value the traded players provided to their respective team:

Net Increase/Decrease Value of Added/Traded Players = Value of Players Received/Traded – Value of Organizational Replacements

This just means we need to take into account each organization’s ability to replace traded pieces within the organization. This is because the pieces traded were not in identical positions to be each other's replacement (i.e. not a quarterback for quarterback trade). If an organization is easily able to internally replace a traded piece with similar value, then the price paid should not be considered as great. For instance, if you trade away Brett Favre and you already have Aaron Rodgers, then you’re not sacrificing much. But if you trade Aaron Rodgers, and you’re stuck with Matt Flynn, then you’re sacrificing quite a bit more.

So now we need to plug names into the equation. Here’s what I’ve got, and I’ll be sure to show my work:

[(Max Unger – Tim Lelito) +/- (Stephone AnthonyJunior Galette)] +/– (Jimmy Graham – Benjamin Watson) vs (Jimmy Graham – Luke Willson) +/- [(Max Unger -Drew Nowak/Patrick Lewis) +/- (Devin FunchessKevin Smith)]

Basically, what the names in the equation look to argue is that if the Saints don’t acquire Unger or draft Anthony, they keep Graham at Tight End, but leave Lelito as the starting Center and don’t cut Galette. Now, there’s reason to believe with Galette’s off-the-field issues, his release was going to happen no matter what. However, for argument’s sake, it’s easier to say in this hypothetical that the Saints are forced to keep Galette after not drafting his replacement. (Remember: Galette’s release came after the draft, so it’s not technically impossible this scenario takes place if Anthony isn’t drafted as a ready replacement.) While Anthony has only played ILB in the NFL, he was considered one of the nation's best OLBs before Clemson. Additionally, many scouts still had Anthony listed as a ILB/OLB hybrid before the draft (Subscription required for link). While Hau'oli Kikaha might have been Galette's actual replacement on the field by position, the analysis is easier using this one-for-one substitution as opposed to re-doing the entire 2015 Draft.

For the Seahawks, we’re diving deeper into hypotheticals. We’re saying if they don’t trade for Graham, they keep Unger at Center and turn the 31st overall selection into Carolina Panthers Wide Receiver Devin Funchess. Funchess was still on the board at 31, but was taken at 41, before the Seahawk’s true pick at 63. Funchess was considered a fringe 1st round talent by Mel Kiper, and while technically listed as a Tight End in college, provided the pass-catching size threat the Seahawks could have envied.

Now to the anlaysis...

The Seahawks experienced a large improvement at the Tight End position (obviously). Luke Willson finished the 2014 season with 362 yards and 3 touchdowns. Jimmy Graham provided 605 yards with only 2 touchdowns in 2015. (Willson added an extra 213 yards and 1 touchdown in 2015). For argument’s sake, all injuries that occurred in 2015, still occur in our hypothetical scenario of no-trade, so Graham only playing 11 games is irrelevant. Russell Wilson was also a beneficiary of Graham's mere presence. Wilson attempted more passes last season than any year before (with an upward trend each year of his career thus far), but also saw his completion percentage increase to a career high, with his touchdown total and total yards experiencing large boosts.

The Saints did not experience quite the same change. Graham in 2014 had 889 yards with 10 touchdowns. His replacement, Benjamin Watson saw a career year in 2015 with 825 yards with 6 touchdowns. (Watson, unlike Graham, played in all 16 games, but still produced similar average yards per game with Graham at 55 and Watson at 51.) Michael Hoomanawanui added 76 more yards, but 3 more touchdowns as his size and Graham-like ability to box out defenders in the end zone made him a rising star for red zone looks.

While the Saints gave up a staple of their offense from the past three years, they did not really experience a huge drop in offensive production at the tight end position due to the Saints’ ability to plug Watson into the role. While analysts criticized the Saints’ inability to punch it into the endzone in 2015, and remarking that Graham’s absence could have been the culprit, the statistics simply do not back that up. The Saints’ red zone efficiency actually went UP in 2015 with the Saints scoring touchdowns on 60.34% of red zone opportunities in 2015 and only 60.00% in 2014. It’s not a noticeable change, but it’s not a decrease – let alone a substantial decrease – as most pundits would claim the eye test supported. Also, Graham's ability to consistently draw a double team was seemingly a non-factor as well. One would think Graham's absence would lead to struggles for the rest of the receiving corps, but again, the numbers do not support it. Colston did have the fewest total yards at season's end of his career, and the lowest average yards per game, but age and a new, young receiving corps were the primary reasons. On the passing side, Brees finished 2015 with only ~80 less yards than in 2014, all while missing the first Carolina game due to a shoulder injury.

I do not want to downplay the productivity of Jimmy Graham in New Orleans. I was one of his biggest fans, and sadly had to store away his jersey deep in my closet after the trade. That being said, the facts seem to indicate that the Saints simply did not pay a high price in trading him away to Seattle when looking at the trade in the vacuum of 2014. Yes, they traded away a Pro Bowl Wide End Tight Receiver (that sounds like a terrible porn parody), but Benjamin Watson's resurgence made the blow not heavily felt.

On the offensive line, to say Unger would be an improvement over a hypothetical Lelito at Center would be an understatement. To say Unger would have been an improvement over the Seahawk’s Nowak and Lewis is just as true. Call it lazy journalism if you wish, but because offensive lines play as a unit, and we’re dealing with a hypothetical of Lelito playing a different position the entire season, we’re going to skip a step here to make analysis easier. The New Orleans Saints’ offensive line played roughly the same in 2015 compared to 2014. We’re also going to attribute a portion of the noticeable change in the Seahawks’ offensive line to the departure of Unger. But because Lelito to Nowak/Lewis is likely a wash, we are going to say the decrease in the Seahawks' offensive line in 2015 is the same state of affairs the Saints' offensive line would have been without Unger in a hypothetical 2015 had there been no trade.

I am making it a point to try not to cherry-pick statistics. I am not pointing to the dramatic drop in Seattle's rushing yards from 2014 to 2015 as evidence as injuries and the age of Marshawn Lynch were huge factors here. I am not even saying Unger was the sole cause of the decreased performance of the Seattle offensive line as they also lost Left Guard James Carpenter. Still, Russell Wilson was hit at whopping 23 more times in 2015 than in 2014, making the Seahawks’ star Quarterback the third most-hit in the entire NFL – a radical change from being the 21st most-hit in 2014. So while the Seahawks experienced a drastic increase at the Tight End position, they also paid a high price on the offensive line to get him.

Then we can look at the 31st pick in the 2015 draft. Remember: any injury that happened in 2015, still happens in our hypothetical, so Galette still misses the entire 2015 season as a member of the New Orleans Saints. Anthony on the other hand had a great 2015 rookie campaign, not missing a single game. He was one of only a few bright spots on an otherwise terrible defensive unit. Anthony finished the season with 112 tackles (becoming the first Saints rookie linebacker to finish the season with over 100 tackles since Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson)), 2 forced fumbles, and 2 scores. He was also named to the Pro Writers’ Association All-Rookie Team while quarterbacking the entire Saints defense. Still though, not enough can be said for his two scores – he scored a defensive touchdown on a head’s up play where he knew he was never touched, and then he became the first player to return a blocked extra point for a score.

For the ‘Hawks, Funchess starts in place of undrafted free agent Kevin Smith. Smith finished the 2015 season with a total of 43 yards. Funchess, on the other hand, with a similar running Quarterback in Cam Newton, had 473 yards with 5 touchdowns, plus an extra 73 yards and a TD in the post season.

With all of this information in front of us, it is easy to see that the Saints made out better in 2014 regarding the Jimmy Graham trade. The drop-off from Graham to Watson was virtually non-existent while the additions of Anthony and Unger greatly improved the team on both sides of the ball. The Seahawks also improved with the addition of Graham, but paid a high price in losing Unger, plus the lost draft pick.

Who is the long-term winner? It’s hard to say, but my gut says to stick with the Saints. Maybe with Marshawn Lynch potentially retiring, the Seahawks will shift to a more pass-friendly offense to better fit Graham (check out this article to see Graham’s usage as a blocker or receiver in Seattle after the first few games). Benjamin Watson sure can’t keep up his 2014 pace at this stage in his career, but Michael Hoomansdkwdjq looks promising. Stephone Anthony could be an anchor of the middle of the Saints defense for the foreseeable future, or he could the next name on a long list of PeyLoo draft busts. Maybe Graham sticks to his word and retires. Too many things could change between now and Graham’s contract ending in Seattle to really make a solid guess now on the long-term winner. Personally, I would have traded the drop in Graham’s production to Watson’s career year for Stephone Anthony’s rookie contract. I’m comfortable from here on out calling it "The Stephone Anthony Trade" instead of "The Jimmy Graham Trade." Unger, to me, was just lagniappe in hindsight.

It’s also important to point out that two large elephants in the room were not discussed in this analysis. First, cap space. Trading away Graham and his entire contract freed up salary cap space to help ease the Saints’ cap problems. While Unger is quite expensive for 2016, the Saints’ financial obligation to him ceases after next year. It is important to look at the Stephone Anthony trade through the prizm of the cap situation at the time. Second, Graham’s blocking. I WAS A JIMMY GRAHAM FAN. I loved Jimmy. I still do. I loved watching him slam the ball over the goalposts, and I defended every critic claiming he was "soft" or scared of contact. I was one of his biggest apologists, willing to make excuses for poor performances. Well, now that he’s not a member of the Saints, let’s sit back and watch "highlights" of Jimmy Graham "blocking."

What about you? Who do YOU think won the Jimmy Graham trade with one year in the books? Disagree? Please vote in the poll. Comment below. Send me presents.