Graham just finished the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, a deal where he made $2.45 million over four years, according to Spotrac. Graham led the league with 16 caught touchdown passes in 2013 and caught 86 passes. Over his four seasons in the NFL he’s caught 301 passes for 3,863 yards with 41 touchdowns.
|Yahoo! & Spotrac|
At $2.45 million, that’s money well spent by the Saints.
Now it’s time for general manager Mickey Loomis and team owner Tom Benson to open the piggy bank.
This could hurt.
According to John Clayton of ESPN, the Saints now sit at approximately $12.5 million over the projected 2014 cap of $126.6 million. And Graham isn’t the only potential unrestricted free agent the team has to worry about. Right tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente and safety Malcolm Jenkins need consideration too, among others.
But Graham is priority No. 1.
There are three very distinct actions the Saints could take with Graham in the coming months. They could sign him to a long-term deal, slap the franchise tag on him or let him walk and test the free-agent market.
There’s no way the Saints are going to let Graham close enough to breath the air of free agency. That means it’s either work out a deal or use the franchise tag.
There are complications and advantages to both methods.
Using the Franchise Tag
The easiest way to ensure Graham is playing for the Saints in 2014 is to use the franchise tag. Per league rules, that decision must come between Feb. 17 and March 3.
Using the franchise tag is simple because the Collective Bargaining Agreement lays all the rules and salary price tags out in black and white. If the Saints go this route Graham will make, for one season (2014), the average salary of the five highest-paid tight ends in the NFL.
Last season that figure for tight ends was $6.06 million.
Here’s one of the problems with using the franchise tag. Graham and his agent aren’t going to want to get paid like a tight end; they’ll want wide receiver money.
In Article 10, Section 9 of the CBA, the rules for determining what position a player should be tagged at are determined by “the position above at which he participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”
Graham was used as a wide receiver quite a bit and rarely as a blocker. Someone is going to have to sit down and watch all 774 of Graham’s plays and track where he lines up.
Former Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook was prepared to fight this battle last season, as was Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers two seasons ago, according to NFL.com. But Cook wasn’t tagged, and Finley worked out a deal with the Packers.
The franchise tag figure for 2013 for a wide receiver was $10.54 million. The 2014 numbers haven’t been set yet, but expect the difference to be similar to the $4.48 spread between tight ends and wide receivers in 2013.
If the Saints use the franchise tag, no matter if Graham’s determined to be a tight end or a wide receiver, there’s a period between March 3 and July 15 where the two sides can negotiate further to solidify a long-term deal. The ultimate goal for the Saints is to get Graham locked up for as long as they can. Expect the team to shuffle salaries around and make cuts in an effort to find the money to make Graham happy.
Signing a Long-term Deal
Graham and his agent will likely be the happiest with a long-term deal in place. But how much money will it take to sign the league’s best tight end?
According to Spotrac, Zach Miller of the Seattle Seahawks was the highest-paid tight end in 2013 at $11 million. But Graham isn’t looking for a one-year payday. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has the richest contract at that position at $55.2 million over eight years.
But is Graham is going to argue that he should be paid as a wide receiver for franchise tag purposes, why not make the same argument while working out a long-term deal?
Graham did lead the league with 16 touchdown catches, and that includes all positions, not just tight ends. He also ranked 15th with his 1,215 yards receiving and 13th with 86 catches. If you take how many times Graham was targeted by quarterback Drew Brees into account, Graham ranked 12th with 144 targets.
The top 10 wide receivers last year (determined by contract value) had a contract that averaged $67.77 million. Using the same scale, the top 10 tight ends looked at an average contract valued at $35.63 million.
It’s pretty safe to say Graham’s new long-term deal will be better than the eight-year, $55.23 million contract Gronkowski received and somewhere close to the average contract of the top 10 wide receivers.
Let’s just assume for a moment that Graham will be looking for a contract value in the neighborhood of $65 million. That’s a boatload of money, especially for a team that’s approximately $12.5 million over the cap and already shouldered with Brees’ five-year, $100 million contract, the eighth-largest contract currently in the NFL.
The Saints are going to have to make some difficult financial decisions. Cuts will have to be made.
Defensive end Will Smith is set to cost the Saints $13.9 million next season against the cap, according to Spotrac. Could he be a cap casualty? Safety Jabari Greer ($5.83 million cap hit in 2014), wide receiver Lance Moore ($5.07 million) and linebacker David Hawthorne ($3.51 million) could also be in danger.
Even after the cuts. Many more players are going to be asked to restructure their contracts to help the Saints. Not only must Graham be signed, New Orleans needs to make a few free agent moves to ensure that not only will the team return to the playoffs but also be able to take a few more steps toward another Super Bowl.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.