Many team's fans are listing Jimmy Graham atop their free agent wishlist, citing his expiring contract and the Saints' current cap situation as the reason for that possibility. Before you get too excited, though, know that Saints' general manager Mickey Loomis has already stated the Saints will absolutely franchise tag the star "tight end" if a deal can't be reached. I believe he will remain a New Orleans Saint, but there are some significant obstacles in the way of making that happen. The question is under what terms would he return, and what will need to happen to make it financially possible?
This will be a complicated contract situation for both the Saints and Graham, much more complicated in my estimation than the Drew Brees deal. The Brees deal was a major stress point in its own right, but there weren't as many layers to consider. That's a big reason why this may very likely be headed towards a one year deal under the franchise tag tender if the teams reach an impasse. Neither side wants that, but it remains to be seen if they can agree to a long term contract that will be agreeable to both sides. Even if the Saints franchise Jimmy Graham, though, how much it will cost is still in question. Indeed Jimmy Graham's camp would very likely want to head to arbitration to determine whether a franchise tender at wide receiver makes more sense for Graham than a tender at tight end if a long term deal can't be reached.
Currently the Saints are ~$12 million over the salary cap, and that's before they attempt to retain players, sign free agents and sign their draft class. By releasing Will Smith alone, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion, the Saints will save ~$10.5 million. Smith is coming off a season on IR after an ACL injury and he'll turn 33 in July, so his best years are far behind him. Smith played no part in the 2013 season, so that loss shouldn't affect the team's performance moving forward. The next most likely player to be released by the Saints is aging safety Roman Harper, and his release would save roughly $2.5 million against the cap. Those two moves alone will put the Saints just under the cap. The work won't stop there, though, as the Saints will continue to have to navigate under the cap to fit in Graham.
Other potential cut candidates that would save the Saints a chunk of cash are Lance Moore (roughly $2 million savings), Pierre Thomas (roughly $2 million savings), and Jabari Greer (roughly $2.5 million savings). Brodrick Bunkley is another. Those cuts will be more difficult to stomach because while those are role players on the roster with diminished responsibilities at this point, they are a clear part of the talent and depth on the roster. The Saints may also restructure a number of deals to give them more breathing room, much like they did a season ago with Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, Bunkley, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Roman Harper, Will Smith and others to accomodate the Brees deal.
Once they are able to get themselves sufficiently under the cap to afford Graham, though, the question becomes how much he will cost. The franchise tag for a tight end is $6.7 million whereas the franchise tag for a receiver is $11.5 million. That's quite a difference and either number would carry a straight up cap hit of that exact amount (no prorated bonuses or anything factor in). If it were decided at some point that Graham could only be franchised as a receiver, that could involve either cutting more players or the Saints or deciding that a franchise tag isn't worth it, giving Graham leverage in a long term deal negotiation. Mickey Loomis believes what position Graham was drafted as and what position he was placed in the Pro Bowl as makes it a clear cut case:
Loomis was adamant about Graham being a tight end. Said that's where he was drafted and that's what he is.— WWL-TV Sports (@wwltvsports) January 21, 2014
Clearly the Pro Bowl argument holds more weight than where he was drafted, though. Marques Colston was drafted as a tight end, and Malcom Jenkins was drafted as a cornerback, for example. Neither player still plays that position. Graham's camp will likely argue that 66.8% of his snaps came from out wide or in the slot position as a "wide receiver". The Saints would counter that in today's NFL the job description for a tight end requires numerous different alignments, and that's in keeping with what many other teams do with their "tight ends". Per the stats in that ESPN link, Chase Coffman, Dennis Pitta, Gavin Escobar, Tony Scheffler, Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow, Jacob Tamme and Tony Gonzalez all saw a higher percentage of snaps in traditional "wide receiver" positioning than Graham in 2013. And if you follow the NFL close enough you know that all those names I just listed are considered tight ends.
The magic number where negotiations could be centered around is the deal Rob Gronkowski signed in 2012. Gronkowski signed the richest deal for a tight end in NFL history at 6 years for $53 million at the time. Interestingly, that deal in smack dab in the middle between the average top salaries of a wide receiver ($11.5) and the average top salaries of a tight end ($6.7) at an average of $8.8 million a year. He received an $8 million signing bonus. I think a 6 year deal for $56 million is possibly the ballpark of what we could expect both sides to eventually shake on if a long term deal is reached. That would give Graham more security and the Saints more financial flexibility in year one (and possibly year two). Let's say Graham gets a $10 million dollar signing bonus and his deal is backloaded only giving him a "salary" of $2 million in year one. That would mean Graham is a cap hit of only $3.6 million in 2014 and he'd maybe jump to $6 million in 2015. Much more easy to budget when you consider the cap hit of a franchise tender contract, and down the road the Saints may have more room to play with as they restructure Brees' deal to afford Graham's inflating figures. Brees has already stated he is more than open to that.
The "X" factor that could force the franchise tag, though, is if Graham demands Calvin Johnson type money. If it's deemed he can only be franchise as a wide receiver, then he'll want to be paid as one of the best receivers. Oddly that could possibly make it less likely that the Saints re-sign Graham long term, or franchise him, and possibly allow him to test the open market. Then we're talking 8 years for $132 million, potentially. That's a Brees type contract, and I don't think any team can carry two crippling contracts on their books like that. It remains to be seen if Graham's camp would play hard ball to that extent and expect that kind of money, but if they do, some of you fans targeting Graham may get your wish. If you get your wish, though, it won't come cheap.
Ultimately I do believe Graham fits what is the modern definition of what a "tight end" is comprised of. While he doesn't play on the line of scrimmage as much as most tight ends, almost no wide receiver ever plays on the line of scrimmage so you can't really confuse the two. The Saints will franchise Graham at a $6.7 million tender, I believe, and have leverage that in longer term contract negotiations. That will make Graham more likely to sign a deal that's in the Gronkowski neighborhood and put this thing to bed. Unless either side is thinking of unfair terms, that's the resolution that makes the most sense for both sides, and the Saints should be able to afford it. Lots needs to happen before that can be a reality, though, and there are numerous stumbling blocks in the way.