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Should the Saints Let TE Jimmy Graham Walk?
The New Orleans Saints have a decision on their hands. Star tight end Jimmy Graham is headed for free agency, and unless Drew Brees and co. want to lose their best offensive weapon, the franchise needs to pull the trigger on a long-term deal or at least pin the franchise tag on him.
Before they can do either however, the Saints and everyone else involved need to figure out exactly how Graham should be tagged (or signed): as a true tight end, or as a wide receiver?
It’s a valid question, as Graham and his camp would argue that Graham’s value is that of a legit number one wide receiver thanks not only to his usage in the Saints’ offense, but also where he lines up in offensive packages. On the flip-side, the Saints have a fair argument in the fact that Graham was drafted as a tight end and plays the position – seen both visually and on paper.
Even Graham’s quarterback, Drew Brees, has come to the franchise’s aid, saying, “He’s a tight end. We’re able to do a lot of creative things with him, just like we’re able to do with a lot of our offensive personnel.”
That’s a nice way of saying Graham is listed as a tight end by position, but deployed more like a wide receiver. Seeing as Graham actually played only a third of his snaps as a true tight end in 2013, Graham has a real argument. Even more important, though, is the fact that Graham stands to lose cash if he fails to be paid like a wide receiver. In fact, the difference between the wide receiver and tight end franchise tags was a whopping $4.5 million last year. In other words, it could pay to be as versatile as Graham is.
The real question on the minds of New Orleans Saints fans, though, is what happens next? More importantly, is there actually a possibility of the Saints not doing what needs to be done to retain their best player on offense?
The short answer has to be no. The Saints are first going to do what they can to make sure Graham is viewed contractually as a tight end. That only makes their job easier in re-signing him to a long-term deal, while also makes the act of slapping a one-year franchise tag less expensive.
However, even if Graham were to find a way to make it so he is treated like a wide receiver, it doesn’t appear the Saints will bat an eye. Saints’ GM Mickey Loomis has already made it clear that keeping Graham is a top priority, and if a long-term agreement can’t be made in the near future, the franchise tag is the next step to be taken.
Addressing the idea of Graham being considered a wide receiver with the franchise tag instead of a tight end, Loomis simply stated that Graham plays the position he always has, saying, “That’s where he was drafted and that’s what he is”.
Easy to say, and definitely right to an extent, but Graham and the people around him may not bow down so willingly. Nor should they, really. Graham isn’t your average tight end. He’s a gifted athlete who is not just probably the best tight end in the game today, but he can also physically do things at the position that few ever could. In addition, his stats and impact in the offense can hardly be measured.
In short, the Saints aren’t going to let Graham go, and they’re probably going to get their way in regards to Graham’s new contract. That’s not to say he won’t be rewarded handsomely for his talents and production – he most certainly will.
But that’s the expectation and what the Saints should aim for. Another slice of this pie is, what if it doesn’t?
If things don’t go quite as planned, it’s not entirely impossible for Graham to become a true free agent and hit the streets. It’s far less likely if he’s tagged as a true tight end, but if he’s seen as a wide receiver suddenly when it comes to his contract, the Saints could balk at his contractual demands and call his bluff.
I don’t see that happening, but should it, Graham would be greeted by an excited market in free agency. The Atlanta Falcons are just one of several teams that would consider chasing him down, as they’re saying adieu to the retiring Tony Gonzalez and don’t really have a long-term replacement on the roster. Graham would cost a hefty price, but it’s hard to say he wouldn’t be worth it.
Along with the Falcons, teams like the Packers, Lions, Bills, Jets, Giants and Chiefs could all express interest, though when you’re talking about a play-maker as gifted as Graham, it’d be foolish to stop the line of teams there. Point being, if Graham were to hit free agency, he wouldn’t be out of a job for long. In fact, he’d almost certainly end up being the highest paid tight end of all-time.
The other potential option for New Orleans if the Graham situation blows up in their face is to rebuild in the draft. Ben Watson is all they have on the roster at the position right now and he’s a replacement level talent at this point in his career. He simply will not do. Trying to appease another tight end in free agency seems silly, too. After all, if New Orleans didn’t keep Graham due to money concerns, why go spend cash on someone new?
Instead, they’d look to the draft. The luck starts anew there, though, as there are three top-level tight end prospects. Eric Ebron is probably the best and most complete, but the point is the Saints could save a ton of money and bring an athletic guy with upside in, and let him flourish the same with Graham did in their pass-happy system.
But for a team with serious Super Bowl aspirations, that’s a lot of backtracking. Don’t hold your breath for the Saints to bluff in front of Graham’s face for long. They have one of the best weapons and offense can have in the NFL – and they know it. The only problem is that Graham and his camp know it, too, and the Saints are going to have to pay to keep him in New Orleans.
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