As the Tuesday 4 p.m. ET deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contracts approached, the New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Graham got to work. Last night, Adam Schefter reported that the two sides were closing in on a deal that would make Graham the highest-paid tight in in league history. Today, that report became a reality when Graham and the Saints agreed to a four-year, $40 million deal that includes $21 million guaranteed.
The root of the disagreement stemmed from the fact that the Saints viewed Graham as a tight end, while Graham viewed himself as a pass catcher. Earlier reports claimed that Graham’s side was seeking an annual salary similar to the $12 million average per year that Mike Wallace received during the 2013 offseason.
Although six wide receivers still surpass him in annual earnings, over half of Graham’s contract is guaranteed. In today’s NFL, often termed the "not for long" league, guaranteed money is king. For example, Dwayne Bowe re-signed with the Chiefs last offseason to a five-year, $56 million contract that pays him $11.11 million annually. However, because his deal only guaranteed him $20 million, you would be hard pressed to find any player who prefers it to the one that Graham just signed with the Saints.
In addition, signing for another four years means that Graham will keep Drew Brees as his quarterback. Brees and Graham have built a dynamic chemistry together, and Graham has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards, and 12 touchdowns over his three full seasons working with Brees. The deal also guarantees him more time with head coach Sean Payton, who signed a five-year contract extension in January of 2013. Payton’s offensive scheme utilizes Graham all over the formation to maximize his matchup and put him in the best spots to be productive.
For the Saints, they were able to keep Graham’s contract scaled by his production in relation to the tight end position. Out of the six wide receivers who will make a greater base salary than Graham in 2014, only Calvin Johnson can compare from a production standpoint. In 2013, Graham bested the other five in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He also bested Calvin Johnson by two receptions and four touchdowns.
Recent contracts signed by other tight ends around the NFL should make the Saints feel even more confident about their decision. Graham received $5 million more guaranteed than both Dennis Pitta and Jared Cook, who were recently signed to long-term contracts. From a production standpoint, both Pitta and Cook can’t even sit at the same table as Graham. If you combined the career-best season from both Pitta and Cook, the combination would still fall short Graham’s three year averages in both receptions and touchdowns while barely besting him in yardage.
Before today’s deal, the Saints had just $1,570,821 million in salary cap space according to Over The Cap. General manager Mickey Loomis will need to work his magic, similarly to how he approached free agency. Much like Jairus Byrd’s long-term contract, I expect that the majority of Graham’s contract will be paid out in years two, three, and four of the deal. For example, if Loomis structures Graham’s 2014 cap number to be the same as Byrd’s at $3.5 million, he will simply need to restructure and/or release only a few contracts to stay under the 2014 salary cap.
At just 27 years of age, Graham has the potential to become an even greater contributor for the Saints during the next four seasons. Then, he will have one last opportunity to hit free agency in his age-31 season. As we’ve seen from recent examples of the top players at the position in Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, the odds are in his favor to still be relevant at that time. It’s a winning situation for both sides.
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