RENTON — Luke Willson starting. Cooper Helfet backing him up. The Seattle Seahawks shopping for help and depth.
And Jimmy Graham not even on the roster.
It’s 2014 all over again at tight end for the Seahawks — not at all by choice, of course.
The Seahawks officially ended Graham’s Seattle-debut season on Monday when they put him on injured reserve, before surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. Graham got hurt Sunday in Seattle’s 39-30 win over Pittsburgh when his leg stuck awkwardly in the turf while he was double covered in the end zone on an incomplete pass early in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Pete Carroll was unequivocal Monday when asked if the NFL’s most accomplished tight end since 2011 will return to playing before Seattle’s 2016 season begins.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yes,” Carroll said.
The team doesn’t know if that means the 29-year-old Graham, for whom Seattle traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans in May, would be back on the field for the start of training camp in late July.
“I don’t know about the dates of that,” Carroll said, “but there’s plenty of time for him to get back.”
The Orthopaedic Trauma Center at the University of California-San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital states surgery for a patellar tendon rupture usually occurs within four weeks.
“After the surgery, it typically takes between six and eight weeks for the tendon to heal,” the clinic states. “During that time, the knee is kept straight in a brace for a majority of the time to allow the repair to heal without stretching out. Once the surgeon has determined that the repair is healed, physical therapy begins in order to regain motion of the knee and strength in the quadriceps.”
Six to eight weeks of the tendon healing would put Graham into late February, at the long end of those estimates. The Seahawks’ offseason training program usually begins in earnest in March.
Until then, Carroll hinted “we may do some things in next day or so” regarding adding another tight end before the Seahawks (6-5) play at NFC Central leader Minnesota (8-3) Sunday.
Willson has 12 catches this season behind Graham, including for 12 yards on the play immediately after Graham got hurt. The fifth-round draft choice in 2013 started 10 games last season after Zach Miller had career-ending ankle injuries, including the final four of the 2014 regular season when Seattle rallied to the NFC West title and all three playoff games through his start in Super Bowl 49.
“It’s tough, especially because he was having a great year,” Willson said of Graham. “He’s such a hard worker.
“I’m sure he’s crushed right now. But I know he’ll come back strong next season.”
Indeed, Carroll has spent extra time with Graham since his injury to comfort him. The coach said the injury “breaks my heart.”
The 6-foot-5, 252-pound Willson has gained his quarterback’s and coaches’ trust by flashing wide receiver-like speed. His biggest plays over 34 catches the last two seasons have come on runs after catches.
“Luke’s got plenty of confidence. He’s a vet now, he’s been around,” Carroll said. “There’s nothing that’s going to surprise him now. He’s really in the groove of it and he’s ready to go. That was evidenced by how he jumped right up to make a play the next snap, and away he goes. He’ll be fine.”
The 6-foot-7 Graham’s season ends with 48 catches for 605 yards in 11 games. Those are the lowest totals since his rookie year with the Saints in 2010, when he’d yet to become a full-time starter. His two touchdown catches this season were a career low. But he had been emerging in recent games as a more consistent target and threat as quarterback Russell Wilson has gotten more time to throw behind an improving offensive line.
The Seahawks filled Graham’s spot on the active roster by re-signing defensive tackle A.J. Francis. Seattle released the part-time Uber driver last week after it had claimed him off waivers from Miami. Francis is on the roster for depth with defensive tackle Jordan Hill recovering from a toe injury and Demarcus Dobbs beginning the league’s concussion protocol. Hill and Dobbs got hurt in Sunday’s 39-30 win over Pittsburgh.
Graham has two, non-guaranteed years remaining on the four-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Saints before the 2014 season. It paid him $2.9 million guaranteed with another $5.1 million in roster and workout bonuses this season.