After all the rumors and speculation, grievances, hearings and appeals, the one thing that was absolutely inevitable finally happened: Jimmy Graham got paid.
The 6'7", 265-pound tight end is a one-of-a-kind offensive weapon, averaging 90 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last three seasons. That's best among all tight ends in all three categories over that period, according to Pro Football Reference.
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, he's getting paid accordingly. The Saints have locked up Graham's services with a four-year, $40 million contract, $21 million of that guaranteed. Now Drew Brees has his favorite weapon back in time to make a deep run into the playoffs.
But what does it mean for Graham and the Saints going forward? Will the cap-strapped Saints struggle under the weight of this deal? Will the drawn-out battle between player and team (including head coach Sean Payton testifying against Graham) sour their relationship?
Might Graham still have one foot out the door?
As Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune told Bleacher Report, all of the legal foofaraw the two sides went through to get to this point was "just part of the arbitration process," and "no side is going to have any hurt feelings":
Brees told Tom Pelissero of USA Today "you can't take things personal." As Pelissero pointed out, Brees also wrestled with the Saints over their use of the franchise tag before finally coming to terms on a big-money deal.
Brees also lent credence to Graham's contention that he's more than just a tight end. "You’re basing your value based upon your comparables around the league," he told Pelissero, "and to be honest with you, I don’t think you can really compare anybody to Jimmy Graham. He’s one of a kind. He’s so versatile. We do so many things with him. He’s really a hybrid. I think he’s revolutionizing the position."
That's reflected in his new deal: Graham is now the highest-paid tight end in the NFL.
The contract's average annual value of $10 million is slightly closer to the wide receiver franchise-tag value of $12.132 million than the tight end value $7.053 million. Per Spotrac.com, that average annual value is $1 million more than the No. 2 tight end, Rob Gronkowski, makes at $9 million; the next five tight ends all earn around $7 million per season.
Going forward, it's clear the NFL and NFLPA have some legal work to do. Modern offenses and defenses with wildly multiple alignments and hybrid positions are starting to break down the traditional positions around which the collective bargaining agreement was written. But for Graham and the Saints, it's time to get back to work.
Back to Work
It's no wonder Brees effervesces about Graham.
He's a physical mismatch for any defender: too big for a defensive back to cover and too fast for a linebacker to cover. He's a lethal weapon against almost any defense and responsible for a huge chunk of the Saints' passing production over the past three seasons.
This chart compares Graham's numbers to all of the Saints pass-catchers over that span:
Graham is clearly the Saints' best receiving weapon.
Not only are his two Pro Bowl nods and one first-team All-Pro nomination the only such honors for the whole group in the last three years, but he's also responsible for a huge percentage of their passing offense. Given how pass-heavy the Saints offense is, it's no wonder they're willing to pay that kind of cash to keep him around.
In the cutthroat NFC South, where the teams are all talented enough to finish in nearly any order, losing Graham would be a massive blow. According to TheSpread.com, the Saints are 7-5 favorites to win the NFC South this year and have 18-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are 11-4 to win the NFC South, and the Buccaneers are 5-1.
Think about the Saints offense with no Graham and Marques Colston routinely facing double-teams. Then, think about Graham in Carolina.
It's a no-brainer to pay Graham to stick around for this season, as the Saints load up for another shot at the Super Bowl. But what about the big picture?
The Saints were short on cap space before this deal. At the time of this writing, Spotrac.com had the Saints at $4.4 million in cap room, sixth-least in the NFL. However, that's with Graham pegged at a $4 million cap hit. That number will be much higher depending on the structure of the deal.
Brees and Graham join Colston, free-agent star Jairus Byrd and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans in big core contracts the Saints have recently signed. As of this moment, the Saints already have $121 million in cap commitments for 2016—that's only $11 million under the current cap, two years out!
Though clever cap management should save the Saints from having to make a big talent purge in 2016, it's also hard to see them making a play for another offensive playmaker.
With Brees currently 35 years old and Colston aged 31, Graham might be the only current Saints offensive player still in New Orleans in four years. If first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks doesn't make an immediate impact, Graham will be the No. 1 option until at least the third year of his four-year deal—and, as good as he is, being the only viable receiving threat will make his job very, very hard, especially if Brees declines or retires.
Nice Doing Business
In the short term, this deal is a win-win.
Graham isn't going to find a hotter contender, a better quarterback or a better coach this summer, especially not one that has both a need at tight end and the cap room to sign him. The Saints keep their only true offensive weapon, the only one that terrifies defenses with his own ability (not as an extension of Brees or Payton).
Regardless of what happens in the future with position designations, the salary cap and contract arbitration, Graham deserved to get paid like an elite playmaker, and he did. That's great news for him, and maybe even better news for the raft of talented young pass-catching tight ends in today's NFL.
In the long run, the fit might not be so great, especially if Brees declines or retires.
That's why the contract is only four years long. When it expires, Graham will be 31, presumably with enough tread left on his tires to get one more payday—whether that's in New Orleans or somewhere else.
Meanwhile, the Saints keep their strong nucleus intact and hopes for a second Super Bowl win in the Payton/Brees Era alive.
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