This deal was huge at the time. New fans may remember him as a slow and overpaid redzone threat, but peak Graham was on a historic tear at his position. With Drew Brees feeding him, Graham was right there with Rob Gronkowski for the title of most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the league.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the statistical dominance of the combo didn’t translate to team dominance. In Graham’s star 2011-2014 seasons, the Saints never advanced past the divisional round and missed the playoffs entirely twice. Even though Graham was far from the problem, it didn’t seem like New Orleans could get over the hump with the current roster.
To make matters worse, Graham wanted elite compensation for his elite status. New Orleans and its star spent the 2014 offseason locked in a contentious arbitration battle over Graham’s true position (with the Saints ultimately winning and applying the cheaper tight end franchise tag). Eventually, they agreed on a massive $40 million deal and the 2014 season played out per usual—with Graham posting gaudy numbers and the team stumbling to seven wins.
On March 10, 2015, Mickey Loomis decided something needed to change. That day, Graham was dealt to a Seattle team looking for offensive reinforcements following a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss. The Seahawks gave up their starting center and a first-round pick with the hopes that an upgrade at tight end would extend their streak of Super Bowl appearances.
Seattle Post Trade
The Seahawks were this close to being back-to-back Super Bowl champs, so adding one of the best weapons in the league had to certify them as a dynasty, right?
Kind of. Seattle is yet to have a losing season since the trade and advanced to the divisional round in Graham’s first year. But, they also haven’t made it past that round since.
Part of that is the result of the trade. It didn’t take long to realize Graham wasn’t going to make the same impact in Seattle as he did by the bayou. Unlike the pass-happy Saints, the Seahawks were built on defense and the run game.
Even still, Graham was on track to post strong numbers once again in 2015. Then, for the first time in his career, he suffered a serious injury. A torn patellar tendon ended his season and cemented a rocky start to his stay in the Pacific Northwest.
A bounce back 2016 season proved to be the outlier in Graham’s career outside of New Orleans. He lasted one more disappointing season in Seattle before somehow earning two more big contracts with the Packers and Bears. Despite playing with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, glimpses of the old Graham were few and far between.
Besides getting less impact from their star acquistion than expected, this trade really crippled Seattle. On the bright side, they did a great job with the pick they received, coupling it with some of their own picks to trade up for Tyler Lockett.
That’s about all we have for the bright side. Trading away the linchpin of their offensive line led Seattle down the dark path of turnstiles protecting Wilson they’ve become known for.
As we all saw, age and injuries hit the Seahawks hard. The youthful and exciting Legion of Boom crumbled quickly. The money dedicated to Graham or the departed first-round pick would have been the perfect means to replenish the defense. Or reinforce the offensive line. Instead, those holes went on to sink Seattle’s championship aspirations.
Wilson and Pete Carroll have overcome these issues remarkably, with the aforementioned streak of winning seasons being truly mind-blowing outside of New England. Once the calendar turns, though, the heroic efforts of those two fall short against more complete teams.
It would’ve happened eventually, but the Graham trade accelerated Seattle’s transition from a young and deep team to an aging and incomplete one.
New Orleans Post Trade
Nothing really changed early on for New Orleans. The offense remained potent and the defense porous. Just as they did in Graham’s last year, the Saints went 7-9 in 2015 and 2016.
With Sean Payton’s genius guiding him, Brees continued to light defenses up, as Brandin Cooks took over as his favorite target. Overall, the Saints didn’t seem to lose much by trading Graham. Given that, it almost didn’t matter what the Saints did with the crown jewel of their return—Seattle’s 2015 first-round pick.
Well, it’s a good thing it didn’t matter because that pick did not turn out well. Their selection, linebacker Stephone Anthony, flashed as a rookie before injuries and inconsistency led the team to give up on him. Shortly into his third season, the Saints flipped Anthony for a fifth-round pick. Needless to say two unspectacular years of play and a day three pick in return are not a good return on a first-round pick.
That pick was the meat of the deal, but the sides ended up making up for the main course in this case. Dumping Graham’s contract helped to unclog the Saints’ perennially messy books. Max Unger started all but one game and made a Pro Bowl in his four years with the team. He played a large role in establishing the offensive line as a strength of the team, as it has remained for years now.
Both Unger and the money saved were instrumental in leading New Orleans to this current era of regular season dominance. There have surely been times when Brees missed his old favorite target, but that trade was a key stepping stone to the current team status.
Final Verdict: Saints Won
This trade was neither great nor destructive for either side. While Seattle got less impact out of Graham than anticipated, he was still solid and the pick they received was key to landing Lockett.
New Orleans completely botched their pick and missed the playoffs the first two years after the trade. Still, they win this trade relatively comfortably. They were going nowhere fast with Graham, so getting out of his contract while picking up a stud center was a shrewd move.
Who do you think won the Graham trade? What trade should I look at next? Sound off in the comments.