Graham may be it, and he’s definitely been tagged, but this isn’t even close to being the end of the Graham-Saints contract debacle. It’s going to get ugly. It’s already bad enough that I have to call Graham an offensive weapon. I’m not sure if he’s a wide receiver or a tight end.
That’s the $5.27 million question. And the Saints and Graham are having trouble answering it.
Graham just finished the final year of his rookie contract and was set to become a free agent when the league calendar resets on March 11. Instead of letting Graham walk and in lieu of working out a long-term deal (more on this later), the Saints decided to use their franchise tag to keep him in New Orleans for the 2014 season.
Now that Graham has been tagged, the league office must decide how much to pay him. In the past the price tag for the franchise tag has been pretty cut-and-dry; the player receives the average of the top five player salaries at his position.
Determining Graham’s position is what’s causing this initial round of trouble.
In Article 10, Section 9 of the CBA, the rules for determining the position a player is tagged at are determined by “the position above at which he participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”
Sure, Graham is a tight end; it’s how he’s listed on the team’s roster. But he and his agent are arguing that since he was split out wide and used as a wide receiver frequently, he should get tagged like a wide receiver.
The folks at ESPN, per Mike Triplett, put some numbers together, and Graham may have a valid point.
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).
And what is this bickering all about? Money.
Since the league has set the 2014 salary cap at $133 million, the paychecks for tagged players can be determined. A tagged tight end will make $7.035 million in 2014, while a tagged wide receiver gets $12.312 million.
Hence, the $5.27 million question.
The difference between just over $12 million and just over $7 million is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s just a small portion of the bigger argument. The Saints and Graham’s people could be breaking ground and setting the way teams in the NFL negotiate salaries in the future to a certain extent. Are positions really as important as what a player does for a team?
More than getting a huge raise for one season with the franchise tag, Graham wants a long-term deal. The two sides have been working on getting that long-term deal done, but they’re nowhere close to a middle ground yet.
Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune reported that the Saints offered Graham numerous contracts during the season, which Holder expected (he was not privy to the details) would have made Graham the highest-paid tight end in the NFL. Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports, speaking of recent negotiations, reported the Saints have been willing to go to $9 million per year, but Graham’s people are asking for $12 million.
The difference here is that the Saints are willing to make him the wealthiest tight end, but Graham wants to be that plus one of the wealthiest wide receivers too. Once again, stats would tend to favor Graham.
Graham led the league with 16 touchdown receptions last season, and that includes every offensive position, not just tight ends. He also tallied 1,215 receiving yards (good for 15th in the NFL), 86 receptions (13th) and was targeted 144 times (12th).
Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune looked at Graham’s numbers over the last three seasons, since he became a starter. Once again, good news for Graham.
His averages of 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns over the past three seasons dwarf those of the league's second-best tight end, Rob Gronkowski (61; 903; 10.7), and compare favorably with top wide receivers like Dez Bryant (83; 1,181; 11) and A.J. Green (87; 1,277; 9.6)
The feeling here is that Graham not only has leverage because of the fact that he played so many plays as a wide receiver in 2013, but his statistics, both last season and over the last three years, also show that Graham is as much top-notch wide receiver as he is the best tight end in the league.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson makes $16.2 million per year, according to Spotrac. Graham isn’t going to get that much money. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski signed a $55.23 million deal in 2012 and makes $6.9 million on average, according to Spotrac.
Here’s what I believe. The deal that Graham eventually signs with the Saints (and a new deal will get done because the Saints are cash-strapped against the cap right now) will be greater than $55.23 million and at a yearly rate of more than $9 million per year. It will be a far cry short of Johnson’s $16.2 million per year and probably less than the $12 million Graham is reportedly asking for now.
What we’re waiting for now is the NFL. If the league determines Graham’s franchise-tag status as a tight end, his new contract will be closer to the $9 million-per-year mark. If he’s tagged as a wide receiver, he’ll be closer to the $12 million-per-year figure.
Since the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement prior to the deadline for franchise tags, the biggest piece of leverage now is the one the NFL will hand out shortly. At that point, if Graham’s side is on the wrong end of the decision, an arbiter will be called in to figure things out.
We should know the answer soon, and then we’ll watch the two sides battle again until mid-July. The deadline for tagged players to hammer out a new deal is July 15.
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.