With Patriots' All-Pro Rob Gronkowski sidelined for the first six games of the season with a lingering back injury, Graham stands alone in 2013 as the NFL's best tight end. He is currently in the final year of his contract, and New Orleans could lock up one of the game's top players for years to come by signing him to a new deal.
The Saints extended an offer to Graham before the season started, but no deal was reached.
The realistic possibility now exists for New Orleans to slap the franchise tag on Graham next offseason.
To Saints fans, this undoubtedly sounds eerily similar to quarterback Drew Brees' contract situation over a year ago. Brees eventually signed a deal just before the 2012 season began, but only after he received a franchise tag.
Other than Brees, Graham is easily the most productive player on the Saints' roster. The reasons for awarding him with a new contract aren't difficult to figure out.
For starters, Graham stands at a towering 6'7". The 6'0" Brees prefers taller, more visible targets, as is evidenced by his play in San Diego. During his tenure with the Chargers, Brees enjoyed consistent success throwing to 6’4” tight end Antonio Gates.
Like Gates, Graham is a former collegiate basketball player. In addition to his height advantage, he possesses extraordinary athleticism. He's usually too fast for a linebacker, too tall for a safety, and too physical for a cornerback to defend him in single coverage.
And with one of the game's most accurate passers feeding him the ball, Graham presents nightmarish matchup difficulties for opposing defenses.
Thus far in 2013, Graham has 37 receptions, 598 receiving yards, and six touchdowns. He averages a whopping 98.8 receiving yards per contest. These numbers are well ahead of pace to surpass his numbers for the 2011 season, when he finished with over 1,300 yards and reached the end zone 11 times.
Such eye-popping statistics make Graham one of the game's most prolific pass receivers, regardless of position. And with the Saints' shortage of dynamic, playmaking wide receivers, Graham's presence in New Orleans is all the more essential.
Granted, Graham was shut down last game at New England by cornerback Aqib Talib.
Very few teams, however, possess a defensive back with Talib's size and cover skills. Graham also suffered a second half foot injury that day, and his lack of production could easily be considered an anomaly.
Another reason Graham's signing is so important revolves around Brees' own highly publicized $100 million contract. Brees is locked in for three more seasons after this one, and New Orleans obviously has a lot riding on his arm.
By signing Graham, the Saints could secure a significant return on their investment with Brees.
No one questions whether or not Brees will produce. But with a proven commodity such as Graham on board, the Saints would all but guarantee themselves at least three more seasons of steady production from their dynamic duo.
The chemistry between Brees and Graham is undeniable.
As Saints fans well know, it's not uncommon to see Brees force a ball into heavy coverage, only to watch Graham come down with it in spectacular fashion. These types of plays breed even more trust and cohesion between quarterback and receiver.
In the NFL, it’s quite common for franchises to lose their top talents to free agency. In fact, it’s a frequent occurrence in New Orleans.
But truth be told, Jimmy Graham is not Carl Nicks, nor is he Jermon Bushrod. These former Saints' standouts left New Orleans for big contracts, but they were adequately replaced soon thereafter.
Players of Graham's caliber are rare finds, however, and there's no guarantee that he'll ever be replaced if the Saints allow him to get away.
That's why the New Orleans Saints must bite the bullet and pay Jimmy Graham for what he is—a talent that comes along perhaps once in a decade at his position.
But if the prolonged negotiation process that accompanied Brees' contract tells us anything, then the Saints could be in for a long wait.
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