Offseason Mode: ON.
Unfortunately the Saints ended the 2013 season a little too early so now it’s time to go back to contracts, restricted free agents, franchise tags and everything else. The situation doesn’t look very good: for the 2014 season teams won’t be allowed to spend more than $127.4 million and the Saints are already over the cap by about $12 million, according to overthecap.com.
Saints fans count on Mickey Loomis and his ability to make ends meet, as he’s been doing for a few years. The problem is that the All-Pro tight end isn’t the only valuable free agent on the Saints roster: guys like Zach Strief, Malcolm Jenkins, Brian de la Puente, Jed Collins are also in the mix and the Saints need them if they want to be competitive in a division that is getting tougher and tougher.
If he goes there will be trouble…
Saints would lose the second-most talented offensive player, the guy that Brees trusts the most. Veteran Ben Watson would become the #1 tight end and Josh Hill would be the back up. Sadly, Watson is too old to have a big impact on every snap and Hill isn’t ready nor talented enough to make the leap and become a starter – yet.
How can you replace him? You can’t. The blend of speed, size and strength make Graham a unique player. Since Graham joined the Saints in 2010 Drew Brees has a higher QB rating of 3.2 points on average (’06-’09: 68.0 avg, ’10-’13: 71.2 avg). He forces opposing defenses to come up with a special plan to contain him, leaving other receivers with a better chance to make a play.
If Graham is released the only starting receivers on the roster would be Kenny Stills, Marques Colston and Lance Moore: both Robert Meachem (1-year deal in 2013) and Joe Morgan (missed the entire season due to a knee injury) will become free agents. The other options in the house are Nick Toon and Chris Givens.
…if he stays it will be double
The easiest way is the franchise tag: Graham can be tagged as a tight end (it would cost about $6.5 million) or as a wide receiver ($11 million cap hit). Can the Saints use a tight end tag on a player that is more often than not lined up in the slot or as a wideout and isn’t exactly the greatest blocker ever? That is the key point on which the whole negotiation will be based.
For him to stay otherwise the Saints have to make some bold, unpleasant moves, i.e. cut other players. What makes more sense right now is the release of some veterans players like Will Smith ($13.9 million projected cap hit in 2014) and Roman Harper ($5.9 million projected cap hit in 2014). If they decide to go this way the Saints will be under the cap by about $1.7 million.
Other top-ten cap-hitting players like Jabari Greer ($5.8 million) and Brodrick Bunkley ($6.1 million) might also be released in order to gain more space. If all of the four aformentioned players are let go by the Saints, they still wouldn’t be able to tag Graham as a tight end since the free cap space would be about $6.1 million.
Last offseason star players like Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Curtis Lofton had to restructure their contracts in order to help the Saints: this year it might be time for Lance Moore, Brodrick Bunkley and/or Darren Sproles to do the same.
In the end I believe that a deal between the Saints and Jimmy Graham to keep him in New Orleans for a long time is the most likely possibility but it might take more than a few weeks. Graham always said that his will is to remain a Saint, we’ll see what the future holds.