It's unclear if New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will ever hit the free-agent market. Graham's contract is scheduled to end this offseason, but he appears to be destined for the franchise tag if he doesn't sign a long-term deal.
Graham is 27 years of age, and he finished last season with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.
That production is incredibly impressive, but it was made even more impressive when you consider that he played with a partially torn plantar fascia. Graham struggled somewhat in the postseason. He had just three receptions for 44 yards in the Wild Card Round against the Philadelphia Eagles, before being held to just one reception for eight yards against the Seattle Seahawks.
It would be easy to ignore what Graham did throughout the regular season and his injury, but it would be a mistake. It doesn't matter if you classify Graham as a tight end or a wide receiver. What matters is what he can do regardless of where he lines up.
Graham is 6'7" and 265 pounds, yet he runs as well as most receivers in the league. His size, speed and ball skills allow him to overwhelm defensive backs or create separation against linebackers. Unless you have an all-around defense that can dominate, such as the Seattle Seahawks, or very specific hybrid players, Graham is going to be a problem for you on every single snap.
His big-play ability is a rare trait in a tight end. Outside of Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas, there isn't a tight end in the league who can match Graham's ability working down the field. In 2013, he had 19 receptions of at least 20 yards and five receptions of at least 40 yards.
Against the New York Jets, Graham had a very impressive touchdown reception. It wasn't his longest of the season, but it did still go for 51 yards.
Graham initially lines up outside the numbers to the right. He motions behind the slot receiver and doesn't settle before the ball is snapped. It's 1st-and-10 so the Jets are in their base front with off coverage on the back end.
The slot receiver runs deep down the field, leaving space for Graham to run into. However, Graham's route is rounded, and that allows the safety to stick with him as he runs to the sideline. Furthermore, the linebacker underneath is in a good position to pick off a pass directed at Graham so Brees had no chance to find him.
Brees wasn't actually looking for Graham at this point of the play anyway.
Nobody is open for Brees, so he moves forward to try and extend the play. With Brees moving to the other side of the field, Graham would be forgiven for giving up on his route and expecting Brees to throw to the other side of the field.
Instead, Graham shows off excellent body control as he arcs his route to turn downfield. The safety was being aggressive on the deep out, so he takes himself out of position. The safety is now in a position where he needs to try and recover. Against most tight ends, he likely would be able to, but Graham isn't most tight ends.
Graham sustains his separation as he moves down the sideline. The safety wouldn't have caught up to him if Drew Brees hadn't slightly underthrown his pass. Brees' pass forced Graham to adjust and go back to the ball. That allowed the safety to tackle him as soon as the ball arrived.
Of course, the safety was much smaller than Graham, so Graham was able to keep his balance and drag him more than six yards to the goal line. Graham's size was a big issue there, but his effort to get to the line spoke to his competitiveness, and his stamina to sustain that strength after running more than 55 yards was outstanding.
Graham definitely has the breakaway ability of a top-tier wide receiver. Much like Antonio Gates in recent seasons, he isn't as fast as the top receivers, but the effect of his all-around athleticism allows him to be very effective.
Of Graham's 86 receptions, an incredibly 61 went for first downs or touchdowns. The quantity alone is incredible, but the quality of his play as a possession receiver also can't be overlooked. Because of his size and his ability to create separation, Graham affords his quarterback a greater margin for error with his accuracy and timing.
We saw that adjustment on the touchdown reception against the Jets, but Graham was already out in front in that situation. When he is working in tighter areas of the field, he has to show off his willingness to take big hits and his strength to fight for the ball.
He does do that consistently, and because he does, he is then able to build off of how the defense reacts to him.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2, Graham had one reception that showed off his impact on the defense. He initially lines up as a tight end to the right. Before the ball is snapped, the Saints motion a receiver from the right side to the left slot. This brings the cornerback across the field.
While the receiver is running behind the line of scrimmage, Graham motions to a wide-right position. He is now in single coverage with the strong safety.
Graham runs a good route here. He initially works toward the defensive back's inside shoulder, before taking one step that makes it look like he is going to break inside. That is right at the first-down marker, so both safeties are very quick to run forward.
Because of Graham's size advantage and his quickness, both defensive backs understand that they can't let him get inside position, or Brees will have a very easy throw.
Brees does ultimately have an easy throw, but it's not to the inside. Graham faked the inside route before continuing down the sideline. Both defensive backs were completely out of the play, so Brees only had to loft the ball to Graham for an easy 21-yard gain.
Creating easy offense is the most valuable thing any skill position player in the NFL can do. When your presence alone forces mistakes from defenders, your value is multiplied.
Graham is listed as a tight end because he entered the league as a tight end/basketball player, but the reality is he is a miscast wide receiver. Graham spends most of his time in the position of a receiver, and his blocking ability is very poor.
His size should allow him to dominate defensive backs and even linebackers, but his technique isn't good enough, and he doesn't have an aggressive approach to the point of contact.
Graham will most likely return to the Saints. He is too good of a player to hit the open market, and the Saints should have enough cap room to franchise tag him if they can't sign him to a long-term contract. However, if Graham hypothetically does hit the open market, then there will be a plethora of teams willing to pay him.
Every team can use a player like Graham. The only qualifier is cap space. Not many teams will be able to afford Graham if a bidding war begins.
The Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins are set to have the most cap room for the start of free agency. Each of those teams do have some talent at the tight end position, but if the price is right, each would desperately like to land him.