Jimmy Graham, Saints Franchise Tag Battle Has Only One Happy Ending

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Jimmy Graham, Saints Franchise Tag Battle Has Only One Happy Ending
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Jimmy Graham wants a long-term contract and to feel appreciated. That’s a dodgy way of saying the New Orleans tight end wants to get paid and, believe it or not, the smart move for the Saints is to give Graham what he wants, at least to a certain degree.

The 27-year-old Graham just finished the final year of his rookie contract. Over the last four seasons Graham’s collected $2.45 million for his efforts, and he’s earned a massive raise. He caught 86 passes last season and led the league with 16 touchdown grabs. Factor in the other three seasons Graham has been in the league, and his 301 catches, 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns should act like an invoice to the Saints.

On his rookie pay scale Graham earned $8,139 per reception since 2010. In a different light maybe he was paid $634 per receiving yard or $59,756 per touchdown catch. In no world would anyone look at what Graham has done over the last four years and consider $2.45 million enough.

He’s been one of the best tight ends in the league, and now that it’s time to get a new contract, Graham should get paid like the best. But this is where the situation gets murky.

Graham doesn’t want to get paid like a tight end. He feels he’s used more as a wide receiver by the Saints and should get paid that way, and the numbers agree with him according to ESPN.com writer Mike Triplett.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Graham lined up as a receiver on 67 percent of his snaps in 2013 (45 percent in the slot, 22 percent out wide, 33 percent as an in-line tight end).

This all boils down to the fact that New Orleans isn’t in the best salary-cap situation and might not have the available cash to sign Graham to a long-term deal. When most teams hit this fork in the road, the franchise tag is used, a tool that allows a team to pay a player commensurate with the top five players over the last five seasons at his given position.

Is Graham a tight end or a wide receiver?

If the Saints have to use the franchise tag on Graham and they slap him with the tight end tag, NFL.com analyst Ian Rapoport reported that Graham would file a grievance with the league.

CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry predicts the 2014 franchise tag figure for a tight end will be approximately $6.8 million. The wide receiver paycheck will be almost $11.7 million. In reality, this argument is a $5 million dispute of stupidity.

No one is suggesting that manipulating a salary cap and making an entire roster of players happy is easy. It’s probably one of the most difficult jobs in the NFL. But this is Graham, not only the best tight end in the game, but also one of the best scoring threats anywhere.

Salary should be about value, or worth, not position.

Every player in the NFL knows that Graham is the most valuable player to the Saints offense. Sorry Drew Brees, it's true. Graham has the uncoverable size of a basketball star intertwined with the speed of a sprinter.

There are a handful of quarterbacks around the league that could come into New Orleans and do what Brees does. How many tight ends on the planet could replicate Graham's efforts?

Not one.

Graham is one of a kind, and it’s time for the NFL—and the Saints for that matter—to stop thinking about a player’s position and start thinking about how valuable he is to a team.

Is Graham a tight end or is he a pass-catcher? Is he a wide receiver or a red-zone target? Graham needs to get paid for what he does, not where he lines up.

Let’s take Graham out of the equation for a moment and talk about the versatility of today’s NFL athlete. Are we going to start paying defensive ends less because now some guys are good enough that they are asked to move inside and rush the quarterback from the defensive tackle position?

Who is the most valuable player to the Saints offense?

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Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (and this goes for any coach in the league) doesn’t care if that defensive end lines up on the outside at the end position, inside at tackle or at linebacker—as long as that pass-rusher gets to the quarterback. In fact, it actually benefits Ryan’s scheme for that player to be versatile enough to move around pre-snap.

It also benefits the Saints that Graham is versatile enough to line up in the slot, out wide or alongside a tackle. Why shouldn’t Graham be paid extra for that versatility?

This Saints offense doesn’t move with nearly its efficiency, power or grace without Graham. That should be what’s considered when deciding what to pay the man, not where he lined up the most.

But for the record, if the letter of the law is adhered to, Graham may win this argument anyway.

Article 10, Section 9 of the CBA states rules for the determination of what position a player should be tagged at. Players are to be tagged at “the position above at which he participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”

Graham was lined up as a receiver 67 percent of the time in 2013. That’s not calculus kind of math, it’s easy math—fifth-grade math. It’s time for the Saints to prove their front office is collectively smarter than a fifth-grader.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Jermichael Finley

There have almost been two cases of a tight end challenging this franchise-tag rule. Former Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook, prior to the 2013 season, almost had to wage this war. But he wasn’t tagged. Two seasons ago, Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers thought about the notion, too. But according to Kareem Copeland of NFL.com, Green Bay wised up and worked out a deal with Finley before things got out of hand.

New Orleans needs to figure out that getting Graham signed long-term is the best option. But according to Rapoport, talks have stalled.

Will it be expensive? Yes, without a doubt. But the Saints have to pay up and give Graham a huge, long-term contract. Doing so now would allow New Orleans to structure his deal in a manner that’s as minimally invasive as a $55 million-plus contract can be.

The alternative is to wait, argue and ultimately use the franchise tag on Graham. There are possible repercussions there.

No matter the outcome of what position Graham is tagged at, Graham is already on record with The Times-Picayune saying that he’d rather have a long-term deal in place.

If the Saints tag Graham in 2014, it’s safe to say he won’t be as happy as he would be with a longer deal in place. Fast forward to this time next year. The same argument about what position to tag him at wouldn’t be necessary because that would have already been worked out.

But New Orleans will still have to find the money to pay Graham, and he’s likely not going to be any cheaper. More than a few players have tried to stick it to their team, financially speaking, after negative negotiations have occurred the year before.

What happens if the Saints can’t afford Graham in 2015? Do they tag him again? Let him walk into free agency?

The Saints would tag him again, further straining the relationship. After the 2015 season—when it wouldn’t be fiscally feasible to tag Graham a third time because of rules in place protecting players from being tagged too often—talks would again resume.

This time Graham might be angry, and he’d see a 37-year-old Brees and possibly wonder if he could catch passes elsewhere from a younger quarterback with more tread left on the tires.

Aaron Rodgers will only be 32 at that time, and he’s already an elite quarterback with an elite offense. Graham in Green Bay sounds like an interesting 2016 menu item.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The last thing the Saints want is Jimmy Graham ending up in Atlanta with Matt Ryan.

What about Graham in Seattle with the Seahawks in 2016? By then will quarterback Russell Wilson be elite? An even more nightmarish scenario for Saints fans would be Graham to the Atlanta Falcons to catch passes from Matt Ryan in 2016.

Do you think Who Dat Nation wants to face Graham twice a season as an opponent? Not a chance.

It’s time to make Graham happy and keep the New Orleans fanbase off the proverbial cliff. Make sure Graham stays in a Saints uniform for a long time. It’s the only happy ending in this potentially nasty situation.

 

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.

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