Saints morning report: Graham underpaid

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
8:50
AM ET
New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan made a great point atop his weekly first-and-10 column. The vicious hit that Saints tight end Jimmy Graham absorbed from Tampa Bay safety Ahmad Black last Sunday was a reminder of the risk Graham is under by playing out the final year of his rookie contract.

Graham has turned out to be one of the greatest bargains in recent NFL history. The former third-round draft pick is earning a salary of $1.323 million this year, when his market value is closer to $10 million.

To his credit, Graham has never publicly complained about waiting for a new deal -- even after fellow 2010 draft picks Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez got lucrative contract extensions much earlier. “I’m the type of player that it’s just about football for me,” Graham said at the start of training camp. “You know, I just want to play, man. It’s as simple as that.”

But that attitude just underscores why Graham is worth such a big payday. Not only has the former basketball player emerged as one of the most talented weapons ever to play the tight end position, but he’s been the ultimate team player through his character and work ethic.

Look, I’m not na´ve. I understand that many of these mega-millions contract negotiations take time to play out, even when the player and team are a perfect fit (Drew Brees' deal with the Saints last year is the prime example). And at this early stage in the negotiating process, it’s possible that one or both sides have yet to budge toward the middle.

But this deal seems like such a no-brainer. The Saints are obviously going to commit to Graham over the long term at some point. He’s arguably their second best player, with the potential to be among the top 10 or 20 players in the entire league this year. And the 26-year-old is still just entering his prime.

So why not get the deal done before Graham absorbs too much risk? And before the talks become acrimonious next offseason (when a debate might ensue over how Graham should be labeled as a tight end or receiver for franchise-tag purposes)?

True, the Saints are in a tight salary-cap situation right now. But they can easily structure a new deal in a way that fits their cap.

And frankly, the Saints might be the ones taking the bigger risk if they let Graham play out the rest of this season. If Graham continues to produce like he did in last week’s 10-catch, 179-yard performance, his asking price will only continue to rise.

Enough for 8? Another interesting nugget in Duncan's first-and-10 column: Former Saints quarterback Archie Manning told him that although his No. 8 was never officially retired, it’s never been worn by any other Saints player. Manning said longtime equipment manager Dan “Chief” Simmons has unofficially kept No. 8 off limits.

One day, Brees' No. 9 will probably get the same treatment .

Red-zone blues: The Saints offense is off to an uncharacteristically slow start (especially in the red zone, as I broke down Thursday). But believe it or not, they have gotten off to slow starts in the recent past, as well. WWLTV.com's Bradley Handwerger has great detail, as usual, on some of the Saints' offensive trends in recent years.

Wrong era for Randall: Last, but certainly not least, is this compelling piece on former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham from Michael Rosenberg on Sports Illustrated's MMQB site. Rosenberg points out what a shame it is that Cunningham wasn't around during the NFL's read-option era.

The story has nothing to do with the Saints. But it hits home for me, personally. I've never enjoyed watching any one individual athlete in any sport as much as I enjoyed watching Cunningham in his prime (even though I grew up across the country in Iowa). Michael Jordan was a close second.

Mail call: I'm planning to post a Saints mailbag this weekend. Anytime you have a question for me, direct it to my attention on Twitter (@MikeTriplett). Or if you're not into Twitter, add it to the comments section below my daily morning report, and I'll make sure to check for them.

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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