Graham trade changes match ups for 49ers

Now that Jimmy Graham is with the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers must find new ways to cover him with Patrick Willis no longer an option.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Tight end Jimmy Graham might be the toughest pass catcher to match up with the NFL.

Standing 6-foot-7 with a basketball background, Graham has 46 touchdown catches to his name over the last four seasons, five more than Calvin Johnson over the same span. Tuesday, Graham was traded to the 49ers' top rival, the Seattle Seahawks, giving Russell Wilson far and away his best red-zone option he's had.

Does this change the offseason approach for 49ers general manager Trent Baalke?

"Not unless you can find a 6’6” safety," Baalke joked Wednesday. "If you can find one of those, I’ll take him."

Ironically, the news of the trade came down an hour after Patrick Willis emotionally announced his retirement. It was the uber-athletic Willis who was most often tasked with covering Graham, starting in the 2011 playoffs, when Graham scored two touchdowns and had 103 receiving yards.

In their next two match ups, Graham combined for 10 catches, 74 yards and no touchdowns. But when Willis was out in 2014 with his toe injury, Graham caught 10 passes for 76 with two scores in San Francisco's overtime win.

The 49ers played the Saints in each of the last five seasons, including the playoffs, and were looking forward to not facing Graham in 2015. After the trade they have to play Graham twice a year going forward against a team that swept the season series in 2014 and made its second straight Super Bowl.

"You’re always looking at match ups. This is a match up game now," Baalke said. "They made a move. If you’re playing chess, they just moved their rook. Right? Now we got to make a move. What move will that be? I don’t know."

Without Willis last season, the 49ers used a band of defenders in coverage against Graham in that November win. Cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox were matched up with him most frequently, with rookie linebacker Chris Borland, Michael Wilhoite, nickel corner Jimmie Ward also taking their shots. Graham scored both his touchdowns against Cox and Culliver, who are both free agents and appear unlikely to return to San Francisco.

So who covers Graham this season if the 49ers can't land that elusive 6'6" safety?

It will most likely be NaVorro Bowman, who Baalke indicated was doing well during his rehab from his ACL and MCL tears sustained in January of 2014.

Bowman was Pro Football Focus' seventh-ranked inside linebacker in coverage in 2013, one spot ahead of Willis. The 49ers will also count on safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, who anchored the back end of the league's sixth-ranked passing defense last season.

But while Graham gives the Seahawks their best receiving option in years, Baalke noted he didn't come cheaply. Seattle gave up starting center Max Unger and the 31st-overall pick in the upcoming draft for Graham and New Orleans' fourth-round selection.

"He’s a heck of a talent. But to get a heck of a talent you have to give up some stuff too," Baalke said. "They gave up a center that we personally didn’t like playing against a lot. He was an awfully good football player. But they gained an awfully good football player. So now you take a look at that, what does that do to their team, how does that change the match ups that we may have with them? That’s what you’re looking at. It’s just chess."

Next story:

Brooks will remain a 49er, Baalke says

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