RENTON — Russell Wilson likens Jimmy Graham to a unicorn.
“Jimmy’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s like a unicorn. There’s only so many of those guys you can find, that can do what he can do,” the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback said with a chuckle of the star tight end.
“He’s pretty special, catching the football, making plays. … Hopefully he can continue to be a Seahawk. I would love to continue his career here with him.”
Unicorns are indeed hard to come by.
But so rare that one is worth retaining at perhaps $8-10 million per year, amid so many other issues for the Seahawks this season?
“We’ve talked to him,” coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday — meaning Graham, not a unicorn.
“We love Jimmy. And we’d love for him to be with us.”
That’s going to take some cash and commitment Seattle may not be able to afford, or prudently choose to pay.
Graham’s 10 touchdown catches in 2017 set a Seahawks season record for a tight end. He has 18 in three seasons with Seattle, also a team record for tight ends, since his trade from New Orleans for Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice before the 2015 season. His 10 TDs this past season were tied for his most since 2013 with the Saints, the season that got him his four-year, $40 million contract that just expired.
But he was mostly a one-trick, um, pony this season.
He didn’t have a game of over 72 yards receiving — and it took his season-high-tying seven catches to get that, at Tennessee in a loss Sept. 24. In different five games, he had fewer than 10 yards, including zilch in the loss at Jacksonville. That chilly evening in north Florida on Dec. 10 he drew Carroll’s criticism for not breaking back to challenge for Wilson’s throw on a ball thrown in front of him that became an interception. Graham compounded his lapse by needlessly shoving Jacksonville’s A.J. Bouye into a Seahawks teammate standing well out of bounds at the end of Bouye’s interception and return. That personal foul sent the Jaguars into Seattle territory to begin their touchdown drive and a 10-0 lead.
“Jimmy’s got to make that play, hopefully, for us, where it’s either him or nobody,” Carroll said in what for the sunny coach was an unusually pointed critique of a player. “That’s kind of what we are counting on right there.”
One week after that, in the biggest game this past season at home against the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL’s most prolific receiving tight end when the Seahawks acquired him had one catch for minus-1 yard. Seattle lost 42-7 and went straight to the brink of playoff elimination.
Graham’s 520 yards receiving this season were his lowest since his rookie season with New Orleans in 2010, when he started a career-low five games. His 57 catches this past season (in 96 targets, 59.4 percent) were the fewest receptions of his career while starting over a full season. Graham’s seven drops in 2017 were second-most in the league, one behind Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee.
Tuesday, in the coach’s earliest end-of-season press conference in six years, Carroll was asked how he evaluates Graham’s season.
“Well, I thought he had a big factor in the season,” Carroll said. “And the fact that he did score — and there was a stretch in there where he didn’t catch a (ball) and you all thought he was going to retire or something like that — but he did have a stretch there. And his stretch and Russell’s stretch was kind of the same; offensively our stretch was kind of the same.
“We were not on it there for two, three weeks in a row. We won the Dallas game without a whole lot of offense that day (the defense forced three turnovers to equal all 21 of Seattle’s points on Christmas Eve). We were efficient and we scored and did some things, but we just got into a funk there on what was going on. Jimmy was having a great season, and I think it’s that really — it was that span of time there that we weren’t on it.
“I thought that the chemistry was as visible as you can make it. We were forcing teams to double him down there, and if they don’t double him we’re going to be able to get it to him, and that’s what we had pictured it to be. It just took a while …
“He was as forcible as anybody in the NFL (in the red zone).”
Forcible and effective enough for the Seahawks to commit a large chunk of their 2018 salary-cap space to a 31-year-old tight end who after three seasons has yet to fully fit in the normal flow of the offense?
Graham seemed to get it Monday.
The tight end has been tight lipped in his three years with the Seahawks, talking to the media only a few times and mostly only immediately after his couple huge games such as his two-touchdown night in 2016 against Buffalo.
On Monday, clean-out day in the Seahawks locker room, Graham turned a corner and saw a horde of media members and cameras inside. He flashed a look of “I’m outta here” — then was. He U-turned from the room and soon was out of the facility, seemingly destined for somewhere else in free agency by March.