Graham just completed the final year of his rookie contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11 when the league calendar resets. General manager Mickey Loomis and Graham’s agent will work feverishly to get a long-term deal done. But if that can’t happen, according to Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune, New Orleans will place the franchise tag on Graham.
General manager Mickey Loomis has been adamant that the Saints will tag Graham as a tight end if necessary.
Herein lies the first problem: Graham doesn’t want to be tagged as a tight end.
Because of Graham’s versatility and athletic prowess, the tight end lined up as a wide receiver frequently during the 2013 season. Because of this, Graham, if tagged, wants to be tagged as a wide receiver. The difference would be close to $5 million dollars: $6.8 million as a tight end versus $11.6 million as a wide receiver.
Because Loomis has already declared he would use the franchise tag on Graham if a long-term deal wasn’t worked out, consider the tag as a security blanket.
The best move for the Saints is to sign Graham to a long-term contract. The price tag on this deal might be somewhere between $35.63 million (the average salary of the top 10 highest-paid tight ends) and $67.77 million (the average salary of the top 10 highest-paid wide receivers). Expect Graham’s contract to exceed $55.23 million, the value of the biggest contract in the league for a tight end (the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski).
Graham is going to want to be paid as the best tight end in the game, a right he’s earned by looking at the numbers.
Pro Football Reference
Even though Graham only started five of the Saints' 16 games during his rookie season in 2010, he’s amassed more receiving yards (3,863) than any tight end in the NFL over the last four seasons. His 41 touchdown catches are second only to Gronkowski (42), and Graham’s 301 receptions are third to Jason Witten (356) and Tony Gonzalez (326).
It’s going to be hard for New Orleans to argue that Graham shouldn’t be the highest-paid tight end in the NFL. But since Graham wants to get tagged as a wide receiver if the Saints use the franchise tag, you can bet that Graham’s agent is going to ask for wide receiver money during negotiations for a long-term deal as well.
Graham’s 86 catches last season were the 13th most in the league while his 1,215 receiving yards ranked him 15th. But Graham caught 16 touchdown passes, more than anyone in the league, wide receivers included.
And when you stack Graham up against some of the best receivers in the league, his agent is going to be able to make a good case for a lot of money.
Over the last four seasons, Graham (41) has just four fewer touchdown catches than Calvin Johnson (45). Over the last three seasons (Green was a rookie in 2011), Graham (270) has 10 more receptions than A.J. Green (260) and seven more touchdown catches.
Graham, over the last four seasons, has 69 more receptions than DeSean Jackson, only 186 fewer yards receiving and 20 more touchdown catches.
This is only a small sample size of Graham’s numbers against some of the better wide receivers in the league. While the large amount of yardage by wide receivers will typically give them an edge over Graham (or any tight end for that matter), it’ll be difficult for Graham’s agent to negotiate him into a wide receiver paycheck on the open market. But there is definitely enough ammunition for Graham to get close.
The Saints can’t let that happen.
New Orleans is currently in a tight financial spot. On Wednesday, the Saints announced they would not re-sign linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and cornerback Jabari Greer.
The move will save the Saints $16.905 million, according to Joel Corry of CBS Sports, and get the team to about $3 million under the cap, barely enough to sign the 2014 rookie class New Orleans will draft in May.
The Saints pick up $16.905M of cap room by releasing Will Smith, Roman Harper & Jabari Greer.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) February 12, 2014
That’s still nowhere close to where the Saints need to be. More cuts are going to have to come and the team will probably ask a few players to restructure contracts.
Part of the reason the Saints are in dire straits is because of quarterback Drew Brees’ $100 million contract. Brees himself in 2014 will cost the team $18.4 million against the cap, according to Spotrac. Add in guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, who combined will cost the Saints $20.1 million against the cap in 2014, and you can see where Loomis’ job gets tough.
That’s why Loomis, even after he makes more cuts and possibly gets several players to renegotiate their contracts, will still have to be careful with a long-term deal for Graham.
A new deal for Graham could cost the Saints more than $55 million over the life of the contract. It will likely be more. Loomis must limit how much he spends. If he doesn’t, he’ll have too much money tied up in just a few players and make it impossible to go out on the free-agent market and compete for more talent.
Brees told Mike Triplett of ESPN.com that he realized the “window of opportunity” was closing for the Saints to win another Super Bowl. Brees just turned 35 years old and won’t be around forever.
In situations like this where a team is trying to put together a championship run as “the window” closes, the more money available the better. If Loomis ties up too much of the Saints' coffers on Graham, it could mean the team can’t go out and sign that one final piece that puts New Orleans over the top.
It’s impossible to know where Loomis’ limit is. How high will he go to sign Graham to a long-term contract? Whatever the number is, he’d better leave enough money to build the team around Graham and Brees. Because one thing is for sure: The Saints can’t win the Super Bowl with just the talent that’s in New Orleans currently.
If New Orleans wants one more Super Bowl championship before Brees rides off into the sunset, Loomis must play his cards perfectly in this negotiation process with Graham. The Saints can’t afford to lose Graham, nor can they afford to pay him extravagantly.
How close can Loomis get to the perfect middle ground?
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.