The New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks agreed to a blockbuster deal that will send tight end Jimmy Graham to the two-time defending NFC champions for center Max Unger.
"It's hard when you're talking about moving someone the caliber of Max Unger," general manager John Schnieder said of the Seahawks' thinking in an interview with NFL Network Tuesday. "This is one of the deals we felt like we needed to make to move forward as an organization."
The Saints will receive Unger, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and a fourth-round pick in exchange for Graham and the Seahawks' 31st pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
It is a bold move by the Seahawks, who released veteran tight end Zach Miller last week. They have been seeking to upgrade the position for some time, and reportedly attempted to land Julius Thomas from Denver and Cleveland's Jordan Cameron before the trade deadline last season.
"We had a good feel for where people were going to fall in line, continued to talk to the Saints and they had a lot going on as well," Schneider said. "His size, what he does in the red zone -- 46 touchdowns in 2011."
Graham had 85 catches for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and has averaged 88.6 catches for 1,099 yards and 11.5 touchdowns over the past four seasons. By comparison, wide receiver Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks with 66 catches and 825 yards last season, and running back Marshawn Lynch led the team with four receiving touchdowns. Luke Willson was the team's leading receiver at tight end with 22 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
The Seahawks know Graham well. He was limited to three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in a 34-7 loss at Seattle in 2013, then caught only one pass for eight yards in a 23-15 postseason loss at Seattle just six weeks later.
Before the game, Graham was warming up on the wrong side of the field and engaged in some trash talking with Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin.
"I asked him politely, I said 'We're about to warm up,'" Irvin said. "He said, 'I'm Jimmy.' I'm like, 'Who is Jimmy?' That's when I hit the ball out of his hands and kicked it across the field."
Graham later got into a jawing match with All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
"He said he was going to run us over or something. Heh heh," Sherman said after the game.
"It's hard coming in here talking a big game. It's hard, it's hard. It's a lamb coming to the wolves and throwing meat at them."
Graham is now a teammate charged with helping the offense upgrade its productivity to complement the league's top defense. Graham signed a four-year, $40 million contract last offseason and is signed through 2017. He will earn just $2.9 million in base salary this season but will count $8 million against the salary cap with a $5 million roster bonus and $100,000 workout bonus.
Schneider said losing Unger is a blow to the offensive line, which also lost guard James Carpenter.
"We feel like we have a lot to do," Schneider said. "We're going to miss max. We're going to miss (cornerback) Byron Maxwell, too. We are excited to add Cary (Williams). He was a guy for us, fits the mold ... thankfully he was on the West Coast last week and we were able to get him up here."
Graham will count $9 million against the cap in 2016 and $10 million in 2017. The Seahawks have been negotiating a long-term contract with quarterback Russell Wilson, who has one year remaining on his rookie deal, but it is possible Wilson could play out the final year of the contract.
In Unger, the Saints receive a two-time Pro Bowl center (2012-13) who has struggled with injuries. Unger turns 29 next month and has missed 13 regular-season games over the past two seasons.
He will count $4.5 million against the Saints' salary cap this season and $4.5 million in 2016 in the final year of his four-year, $25.835 million contract.
"This one is a hard pill to swallow," Baldwin tweeted about Unger. "A great player, a great teammate and a great man. Thank you @MaxUnger60 for everything!"
Baldwin then added: "With that being said. 12s welcome @TheJimmyGraham to the PNW!"
--The Seahawks announced the hires of three assistant coaches.
Dwaine Board will be the assistant defensive line coach, Chris Cash will coach cornerbacks and Andre Curtis will coach safeties.
Board spent 2003-08 as the defensive line coach under Mike Holmgren. The Seahawks ranked second in the NFL with 136 sacks from 2005 to 2007 and led the NFL with 50 sacks in 2005, when they played in Super Bowl XL. Board earned four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers -- three as a player (1981, 1984, 1988) and one as defensive line coach (1994). He is one of 20 people in NFL history to win a Super Bowl as both a player and coach.
Board coached with the 49ers from 1990 to 2002 and, after Seattle, joined the Oakland Raiders (2009-10) and Cleveland Browns (2011-12). He spent the last two years at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif.
Cash played in the same USC secondary as Kris Richard under Pete Carroll in 2000-01. Both defensive backs were drafted in 2002, and Richard had been Seattle's secondary coach until being promoted this offseason to defensive coordinator to replace Dan Quinn, who was hired as the Atlanta Falcons' coach.
After a five-year NFL career marred by injuries, Cash got into coaching in 2007. He spent five seasons as a high school defensive coordinator before coaching safeties at Florida A&M the past two years.
Curtis most recently was assistant secondary coach for the New Orleans Saints. He also was a defensive quality control coach for the New York Giants (2006-08) and safeties coach for the St. Louis Rams (2009-11).
--Tight end Jimmy Graham said when Saints coach Sean Payton informed him he'd been traded, he at first didn't say to which team he was headed.
Said Graham, "When he told me Seattle, it definitely put a grin on my face. I've had some battles clearly against their defense the last couple of years. We've struggled against them as a team as a whole. It's probably the one game as a player you always look forward to because they're always so good and it's usually a prime-time game.
"So for me it was a moment of shock, but once that shock cleared, I realized that I was going to the best team in football."
--Former New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham admitted he was shocked to get traded at the start of NFL free agency.
He also said that when the shock wore off, he was happy to be heading to "the best team in football."
"Well, immediately once (Saints coach) Sean (Payton) said that I'd been traded, I was going through the list of everyone who had a bunch of cap space, so I was thinking Jacksonville or Oakland or wherever, but when he told me Seattle, it definitely put a grin on my face," Graham said.
The Seahawks received Graham and a fourth-round draft pick in a deal that sent center Max Unger, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and the Seahawks' 31st pick in the first round of this year's draft.
Graham had 85 catches for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and he averaged 88.6 catches for 1,099 yards and 11.5 touchdowns over the past four seasons.
Seattle, which advanced to the last two Super Bowls, winning in 2014, did a good job keeping him in check. He was limited to three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' 34-7 loss at Seattle in 2013, then caught only one pass for 8 yards in a 23-15 postseason loss at Seattle just six weeks later.
"I've had some battles clearly against their defense the past couple of years," Graham said. "We struggled against them as a team, as a whole. It's probably the one game that as a player you always look forward to because they're so good as a team and it's usually a prime-time game."
Graham joins a team that was lacking a true No. 1 aerial threat, with wide receiver Doug Baldwin leading the Seahawks with 66 catches and 825 yards last season. Running back Marshawn Lynch led the team with four receiving touchdowns. Luke Willson was the team's leading receiver at tight end with 22 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
"I've been watching some film, and it seems like a lot of teams play a lot of cover zero against them because of Marshawn Lynch and because the read-option is so good," Graham said. "Marshawn -- you have to put guys in the box, you have to bring safeties down, and so when you're playing cover zero, there's a lot of one-on-one, there's a lot of opportunities down the field, there's a lot of opportunities in that middle section where you'll have guys on these one-on-one matchups.
"I think eventually teams won't be able to do that. You're not going to be able to go cover zero just to stop the run. I think I can help open that up. Then in the red zone -- that's something I've always been good at. I'm 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, and most of those are like a rebound for me. So I'm looking to fit in anywhere they need me. You know, I'm a team player and I'm all about winning. Wherever they want me and whatever they want me to do, I'm 100 percent on board, and that's with anything."
Graham also hopes to develop as much chemistry with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson as he did with Saints signal-caller Drew Brees.
"The first guy to reach out to me was Russell," Graham said. "He called me right away, shot me a text and we just kind of briefly spoke and talked about his goals and his team goals and what's been going on and just catching up and sharing some things.
"What I shared with him was exactly the chemistry thing. I said, 'Listen, I'm going to go wherever I need to go and I'm going to be wherever I need to be to get with you and work on this chemistry because that's the most important thing is chemistry.' And the only way to get that is time. You've got to run those routes and you've got to catch and throw. So I'm really looking forward to getting with him and learning more about him as a player, as a thrower, as a passer."
--The Seahawks did not use their franchise tag this season and have not used it since 2010, when they placed it on kicker Olindo Mare.
--Seattle is still looking to fill at least two assistant coaching openings on defense, specifically likely to hire at least one more for the secondary. But the main jobs have been set, with Kris Richard promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator and Rocky Seto promoted from defensive passing game coordinator to assistant head coach of the defense. Each will continue to work with the secondary as well. Richard replaced Dan Quinn, who left to become coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
--Seattle hired Micheal Barrow as its new linebackers coach to replace Ken Norton Jr., who left to become defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. Seattle also brought back former linebacker Lofa Tatupu as an assistant linebackers coach to work with Barrow.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The Seahawks, who have been scouring the defensive line market, added two, coming to terms on a one-year deal with veteran tackle Ahtyba Rubin and re-signing tackle D'Anthony Smith.
Rubin had played the past seven seasons in Cleveland, where he was a sixth-round pick in 2008.
The 6-foot-2, 325-pounder twice has surpassed 80 tackles in a season (2010 and 2011) and just finished a four-year, $26.5 million contract.
Last season, an ankle injury limited him to 28 tackles in 13 games -- possibly the reason his market was not more robust.
Smith spent the 2014 season on injured reserve.
The Seahawks originally acquired Smith from the Jacksonville Jaguars in August 2013, but they released him in September.
Smith, a third-round pick by the Jaguars in 2010, has played in just 10 games.
--The Seahawks signed cornerback Will Blackmon, trying to address depth concerns in the secondary by bringing back a player they released in final cuts in 2013.
Blackmon, 30, was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars after being cut by Seattle that summer and played in 23 games, starting 11, for the Jaguars over the past two seasons.
The Jaguars released him Feb. 26.
In 2013, he tallied 40 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Last season, he had 28 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble but missed the final eight games with a broken finger.
Blackmon, a fourth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2006, has played nine years with the Packers (2006-09), New York Giants (2010-11) and Jaguars.
The Seahawks are short-handed in the secondary: Byron Maxwell reportedly will sign a blockbuster deal with the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday; Jeremy Lane is recovering from a broken arm and torn ACL suffered in the Super Bowl; and Tharold Simon is recovering from shoulder surgery.
Seattle announced two other roster moves, signing linebacker Mike Morgan and tight end Anthony McCoy to contract extensions.
Morgan, 27, spent the past four seasons with the Seahawks after signing as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Southern California in July 2011. He appeared in five games as a rookie, then played every game the next three years, compiling a total of 40 tackles in 53 games (one start). He was scheduled to become a restricted free agent.
Morgan scored a touchdown in October against the Dallas Cowboys, returning a blocked punt 25 yards.
McCoy, 27, appeared in 34 games for Seattle from 2010-12 and made 14 starts. He spent each of the past two seasons on injured reserve due to Achilles problems. For his career, he has 31 catches for 437 yards and three touchdowns. McCoy was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
1. Wide receiver: While the Seattle receivers will forever protest that they are all they need, the reality is that the trade of Percy Harvin created a hole that has yet to be replaced. The depth situation is further accentuated by the knee injury to rookie Paul Richardson. Seattle could use a true No. 1 and better depth at the bottom.
2. Cornerback: About 18 months ago, Seattle had as much depth at cornerback as it seemed possible for any team to have. But being forced to cut a few players, free agency and injuries has left the Seahawks looking potentially thin at the spot. Byron Maxwell, the starter opposite Richard Sherman, departed in free agency. Tharold Simon, who started at times last season, had offseason shoulder surgery and nickel back Jeremy Lane tore an ACL in the Super Bowl on the same play on which he also broke his arm. While Simon should be ready for the start of the season, Lane is likely to still be recovering and the Seahawks will need to add not only depth but potentially someone who can contend for a starting job at the right and nickel corner spots.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--WR David Gilreath (not tendered as ERFA).
--C Steve Schilling (not tendered as RFA) started three games at midseason due to injuries but then suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own. Could be a long shot to be back.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--DL Landon Cohen was a late-season pickup who saw action in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. Given the team's depth needs up front, he could be worth bringing back to camp.
--LB Heath Farwell was Seattle's special teams captain in 2012 and 2013 before missing last year with a groin injury. He spent last year on injured reserve and helping coach, and the 33-year-old' playing days may be done. He said at the Super Bowl that he hoped to get another shot, but that might not happen in Seattle.
--QB Tarvaris Jackson has been the team's backup the last two years, and did so last year at $1.25 million a season. He turns 32 this year and may not have a lot of other options. Still, Seattle could decide to go with third-year player B.J. Daniels as the backup behind the durable Russell Wilson and try to save a little money.
--C Lemuel Jeanpierre, who had been with the team since 2010 before being released due to an injury in the 2014 preseason, was brought back at midseason once healthy to fill in at an injury-ravaged position. But the emergence of Patrick Lewis could mean the team doesn't need Jeanpierre anymore.
--DL/FB Will Tukuafu was signed at midseason when the Seahawks lost starting fullback Derrick Coleman to an injury. There probably won't be a huge market for him, with Seattle one of the few teams to really value the fullback spot.
--DT Kevin Williams filled a valuable role last season as a reserve early and then the starting nose tackle down the stretch when the Seahawks lost Brandon Mebane to injury. He'll turn 35 soon, so he'd get a short-term deal, at best, and the big question may be whether he wants to play anymore. But if he does, Seattle likely will have a spot for him.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--WR Jermaine Kearse (tendered at $2.356M with second-round pick as compensation) was one of the team's two full-time starting receivers last year, along with Doug Baldwin. He didn't have the breakout year some expected, with just 38 catches. But he again had a big postseason, with the winning touchdown in the NFC title game and the juggling catch that had Seattle positioned to win the Super Bowl. He's almost certain to be back.
EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--WR Ricardo Lockette has been a valued special teams player and has as much speed as anyone on the roster. He was the target on the ill-fated final play of the Super Bowl, but the team seems likely to want him back.
--DB DeShawn Shead can back up at both corner and safety and is a key special teams player, and the team needs all the depth in the secondary it can get right now.
--DE Demarcus Dobbs: UFA; terms unknown.
--LS Clint Gresham: UFA; $2.705M/3 yrs, $300,000 SB.
--TE Anthony McCoy: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Mike Morgan: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--DE Greg Scruggs: Potential RFA; $785,000/1 yr, $100,000 SB.