New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham

I’m ranking the top 20 New Orleans Saints players leading up to training camp. It’s based on their current value -- meaning both past accomplishments and potential are taken into account. Think, who would you want on the field most in Week 1 this season?

At No. 2, it’s tight end Jimmy Graham.

Profile: Year 5, Age 27, 6-foot-7, 265 pounds

Analysis: Yes, he was worth all the fuss.

Graham
Now that there is no longer any need to debate what position Graham plays or how much money he is worth, Saints fans can simply go back to appreciating him as one of the league’s top playmakers. Graham leads all NFL players with 36 touchdown catches over the past three seasons, averaging 90 catches and 1,169 yards per season during that span. He is a matchup nightmare with his combination of size and speed, especially in the red zone and especially in an offense led by Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

As I wrote last month, I would rank Graham among the top-10 pass-catchers in the NFL. He was recently voted as the 10th best player in the entire league by his peers on the NFL Network’s annual list. Naturally, Graham has been picked apart in recent months while his deal was being negotiated. But I feel like most of the popular criticisms are overblown (that he struggles against cornerbacks or goes quiet in big games). The only times that really happened last season were against New England and Seattle. And who doesn’t look bad against Seattle’s defense -- especially when All-Pro safety Earl Thomas spends most of the game shadowing them?

Graham remained dominant in two late-season games against the Carolina Panthers, among others, last season. And I couldn’t help but notice Graham catching touchdown passes against Pro Bowl cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, among others, during his NFL Network highlight reel.

Graham is not a big asset as a blocker. But his physicality is a major strength as a receiver, especially when he gains yards after the catch. And he has shown tremendous toughness while playing through some significant injuries over the past two seasons. The scariest part? He's still developing as a football player and will probably be even better at countering cornerbacks, etc., going forward.

Previous rankings:

No. 20 (tie) RBs Mark Ingram/Khiry Robinson
No. 19 WR Kenny Stills
No. 18 S Rafael Bush
No. 17 LB David Hawthorne
No. 16 CB Champ Bailey
No. 15 P Thomas Morstead
No. 14 OT Zach Strief
No. 13 RB Pierre Thomas
No. 12 DE Akiem Hicks
No. 11 S Kenny Vaccaro
No. 10 LB Curtis Lofton
No. 9 G Ben Grubbs
No. 8 OLB Junior Galette
No. 7 WR Marques Colston
No. 6 G Jahri Evans
No. 5 CB Keenan Lewis
No. 4 S Jairus Byrd
No. 3 DE Cameron Jordan
Rather than play under the tight end franchise tag this season at $7.053 million, New Orleans Saints pass-catcher Jimmy Graham received a four-year deal worth a maximum value of $40 million. The deadline for reaching such a long-term deal was Tuesday after Graham lost his fight to be franchised as a receiver ($12.132 million).

ESPN’s Field Yates uncovered the details behind Graham’s new contract, which included a $12 million signing bonus. As Yates points out, Graham has $20.9 million guaranteed and could earn all $40 million in the contract.

Here is how it breaks down:

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Right about now, both Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints should be spiking footballs over the goalpost.

This is how it was always supposed to end, with the two sides finding a way to keep Graham where he belongs.

I'm sure one side or the other might feel like it got the better end of the deal. From where I sit, the Saints got a bit of a bargain by having to pay Graham "only" $10 million per season over four years, with $21 million in guarantees, according to ESPN Insider Adam Schefter.

But obviously Graham won't be sulking after becoming the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. And the four-year deal will give him a chance at another huge payday when he's just 31 years old.

Graham sure seemed happy (on Twitter, anyway) when he was the one who actually broke the news Tuesday morning with this declaration:


Is he a tight end? A wide receiver? Who cares? Graham gets to stay in a Sean Payton offense that has proved it can exploit him as one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NFL.

Remember when Graham said he wanted to retire whenever Drew Brees retires, so he wouldn't have to play with any other quarterback? Sure, he was probably at least half-joking, but that's how Graham should feel. There's not a better combination of coach, quarterback and unique offensive weapon in the league than Payton, Brees and Graham. Now they can get back to the business of piling up touchdowns, adding to Graham's league-leading total of 36 touchdown catches over the past three years.

And they can start working together toward winning a Super Bowl -- a goal that just became more doable.

It would be easy to sit here and say the two sides should have signed this deal six months ago. Or a year ago. Because it always felt inevitable that they would find a way to get it done before the July 15 deadline.

However, I don't blame Graham's camp for trying to maximize his earning potential through the franchise-tag grievance he filed, trying to be declared a receiver instead of a tight end. Neither will the Saints. They understand the business, and this was a unique deal with a groundbreaking type of player.

I'm not sure if Graham will feel any lingering resentment toward the Saints for aggressively shooting down that grievance, with both Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis testifying against him. But he shouldn't, for the same reasons. That's what they had to do to keep his price tag from soaring above $12 million per year.

In the end, it was up to both sides to make sure they didn't stretch their leverage too far. It was up to both sides to make sure they were flexible enough to get this deal done and try to make everyone happy. And this one seems to fit the bill.

For that, both sides should be congratulated.
Tight end Benjamin Watson is confident there won’t be any lingering animosity between teammate Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints once they finally get their contract negotiations resolved.

Watson, who visited ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Connecticut, on Friday to serve as a guest analyst on a variety of programs, admitted Graham’s negotiations have been more public than most because of his franchise-tag grievance hearing. But he said it’s really no different than typical contract situations, which can also get heated at times.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin Watson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenjamin Watson, 82, says he expects no lingering issues in the wake of Saints teammate Jimmy Graham's contract negotiations.
“I’m very confident that it’ll be resolved the right way and guys can move forward,” Watson said during a break between his on-air appearances. “Obviously it’s always tough when you go through litigation with somebody, and it can probably get heated. And I’m sure there are emotions on both sides. But that is the business side of the game.

“And it’s unfortunate that it came to that and that it was so public. But I really think -- I know, I don’t think -- I know that Jimmy loves New Orleans and I know that he loves our team and the organization and he loves playing here. And we love him, everybody wants him here, coaches included. So when it comes down to contract situations, that’s just a necessary evil. ... Not even evil, but just a necessary progression of getting a player here.”

Watson was asked specifically by host Robert Flores on the Football Today podcast about the unique situation where Saints coach Sean Payton essentially testified against Graham during Graham’s grievance hearing. And Watson admitted that he found that interesting, but he still classified it as part of the business side of the game.

“Welcome to the business side of football,” Watson said. “And a lot of times we don’t see this part because rarely does a situation make it all the way to arbitration. But that’s the business side of football. And it’s kind of no different than a contract situation where there’s a heated discussion over contracts, things are said back and forth. And in the end, both sides are able to amicably move on and back to the business of football once there’s an agreement in place.

“But I’m with you. I was thinking much the same thing when I heard that Coach Payton was having to testify, and I don’t know if he was testifying on his own accord or was being forced to, and I also don’t know what conversations he’s had with Jimmy since then and where their relationship stands. But I do know that if and when Jimmy makes it back, and hopefully sooner than later, things will be smoothed over and we'll get to trying to play Saints football and winning championships.”

Graham and the Saints have until Tuesday to work out a long-term contract agreement. Otherwise, Graham can only sign a one-year deal this season under the league's franchise-tag rules. If a long-term deal is not reached by Tuesday, the "business" could get even uglier since it could lead to a lengthy training camp holdout. But many times, deals get done at the 11th hour before these mid-July deadlines -- as was the case with the Saints and Drew Brees in 2012.

As for how the grievance hearing played out -- with arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruling that Graham is, in fact, a tight end instead of a wide receiver -- Watson said he always thought it would be a 50-50 proposition. But he thinks it will be important for the NFL and NFLPA to better clarify things in the future since the new breed of hybrid tight/end receiver is only growing around the league.

“You can even see with the decision, he kind of just had to make a line of demarcation when he talked about the four yards away from the tackle. So it’s still kind of vague,” Watson said of Burbank’s ruling. “I think that Jimmy is somewhat of a pioneer in that area because it got all the way to arbitration, but I think it’s going to come up again with other tight ends, especially because so many tight ends are coming up and being used as more traditional wide receivers, kind of in that in-between area. The NFL goes through change a lot and things evolve. And as the game changes and as players change, there has to be different conversations.”

Watson also talked about topics ranging from Brees to LeBron James on ESPN’s “First Take.” However, James’ signing began to dominate the news as the day went on, cutting short some of Watson’s appearance schedule.

This was the second time Watson has gone through the ESPN “Car Wash” during his 11-year NFL career. He has also served as a guest analyst frequently on the NFL Network and previously did some local TV work while with the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.

Watson, who took part in the NFL’s “Broadcast Boot Camp” last year, said he “definitely” has an interest in broadcasting as a post-football career and just wanted to get in some “reps” during the offseason.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted safety Mark Barron specifically to help them defend New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, according to testimony from former Buccaneers assistant coach Butch Davis.

ProFootballTalk unearthed that interesting nugget after obtaining a portion of the testimony from Graham’s recent franchise-tag grievance hearing.

“We took Mark Barron in the first round simply because of Jimmy Graham,” said Davis, who served as a special assistant to the head coach.

Davis was testifying on behalf of the position that Graham was a wide receiver. But as PFT pointed out, the testimony was actually turned against Davis on cross examination by the NFL, when Davis admitted that the Buccaneers didn’t draft a cornerback to cover Graham and that they would never have drafted a safety to cover Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.

You won’t find a much better perspective -- or stronger commentary -- on Jimmy Graham's contract negotiations with the New Orleans Saints than the column Tony Gonzalez wrote for CBSSports.com.

Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, and he was the same kind of hybrid receiver/tight end that Graham is now. Gonzalez agreed that Graham is not, in fact, a wide receiver. And Gonzalez even suggested a great term for their shared role: “Tighty Widey.”

On a much more serious note, however, Gonzalez expressed his own past frustrations with how tight ends get shortchanged when it comes to contract negotiations – even going so far as to label it as “discrimination.”

Gonzalez went into detail about his past contract negotiations with the Kansas City Chiefs, who twice made him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. Gonzalez said that of course he was thrilled with both deals. But at the same time, he said he was frustrated with how he was always paid according to his roster position instead of his actual production.
“The Chiefs' GM at the time was Carl Peterson, and his battle cry during the lengthy negotiation was, ‘you're not a receiver so I can't pay you like one,’” Gonzalez wrote. “It didn't seem fair that no matter how many passes I caught or how many touchdowns I scored, I was considered a ‘lowly tight end’ and would never be paid anywhere close to a salary as high as the elite wide receivers.”

Gonzalez argued that the NFL is the only major professional sports league that slots players' salaries by position. And he said changing the system should be a top priority for the NFL Players Association going forward.

“I can think of a few terms to describe what's going on in the NFL like ‘backward,’ ‘lack of common sense’ or ‘behind the times’ but the one that makes the most sense is ‘discrimination,’” Gonzalez wrote. “Salaries should be set based on production and contributions, not positions.”
Many fascinating debates have emerged over the New Orleans Saints' tight end Jimmy Graham in recent months: Not only whether he should be considered a tight end or wide receiver, but also where he ranks among all the top pass catchers in the NFL overall.

One huge plus in Graham's favor -- he has cracked the top 10 overall players in NFL Network's annual ranking of the top 100 players in the league after being snubbed from that list completely last year. Both Graham and Saints quarterback Drew Brees made the top 10 on that list, which is determined by votes from other players around the league. The exact order will be revealed next week.

On the flip side, however, statistician Nate Silver explored yet another element of the debate Thursday on ESPN's sister site, FiveThirtyEight.com: How would Graham's numbers be affected if he played with just an average quarterback instead of Brees?

Not surprisingly, Silver found that Graham's numbers would take a big dip -- especially his lofty touchdown totals. The same is true for all Saints receivers, as well as those who have played with the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, etc.

Graham probably took the biggest dip of all, though. Silver calculated that his average numbers over the past three years would have dipped from 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per season to 76 catches, 917 yards and seven scores per season.
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The New Orleans Saints won big on Wednesday. But now they need to do right by Jimmy Graham.

The Saints still need to offer Graham what he's worth -- at least $10 million per year, no matter if you consider him a wide receiver, a tight end or a hybrid.

This thing still can -- and should -- turn into a win-win proposition, with the sides reaching a new deal before the July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contracts.

Graham
It should play out just like the dragged-out Drew Brees contract negotiations two years ago, when the Saints ultimately made Brees the NFL's first $20 million-per-year player before that same mid-July deadline.

It’s all contingent on the Saints' paying Graham what he deserves. I believe they will -- even though the team now has a lot more leverage following a groundbreaking ruling by arbitrator Stephen Burbank on Wednesday.

In fact, I think it's even more likely that a long-term deal will get done by July 15 after Burbank ruled that Graham is officially considered a tight end for franchise-tag purposes.

If Graham had been declared a wide receiver, he might have been priced out of New Orleans. The Saints' one-year, franchise-tag tender would have vaulted from $7.053 million to $12.13 million. And it would have been impossible for the Saints to sign Graham to a long-term deal worth less than $12 million per year.

Graham still has some leverage -- namely the fact that he is hugely important to the Saints' success. The Saints don't want to risk losing Graham to a holdout. And there's no reason for them to try to shortchange the guy who has emerged as the second-best player on their roster, behind Brees.

Despite their haggling over whether Graham should be declared a tight end or wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes, this is still one of the best marriages in the NFL. No matter what you want to call his position, Graham is a groundbreaking matchup nightmare who is even more potent in an offense led by Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees, two of the best at exploiting matchups.

Graham has been a monster on the field for the past three seasons, leading the NFL with 36 touchdown catches and averaging 90 catches and 1,169 yards. He has also been a model player, playing through injuries and developing a close bond with his quarterback.

I had no problem with the Saints or Graham fighting over whether he should be declared a tight end or wide receiver, because there were millions of dollars and a lot of negotiating leverage at stake. As Brees and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis have both said, that is just the nature of the business.

But the way teams and players avoid letting these things turn into lasting problems is by ultimately finding the price tag that makes everyone happy.

For Graham, I say that's at least $10 million per year. If he were free to test the open market, I think he would be paid like a top-five receiver, somewhere around $12 million annually.

Even if you want to base Graham's salary off other tight ends, you would have to agree he should raise the bar significantly from the previous high contract -- the $9 million per year Rob Gronkowski received from the New England Patriots in 2012, when Gronk was just two years into his rookie deal and had even less leverage.

As I've written countless times this offseason, I think it's impossible to diminish the numbers Graham has produced over the past three seasons, even though he hasn't been as productive when matched up against cornerbacks and was held quiet in the playoffs.

I strongly dispute the notion that Graham comes up small in big games. He had a combined 11 catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns in two pivotal December showdowns against the Carolina Panthers last season and was huge in the 2011 postseason.

He's the second-most-valuable player on the Saints' roster and one of the biggest reasons they have a bona fide chance to compete for the Super Bowl this season and for years to come after that.

Graham might be "just" a tight end. But he's the most valuable one the NFL has ever seen. And the Saints need to pay him accordingly.
Jimmy GrahamChris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham, regardless of where he lined up, has produced big numbers for the Saints.
It’s probably fair to paint Jimmy Graham as the underdog in his long-awaited grievance hearing, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

However, I think it’s the New Orleans Saints that stand to lose the most.

That’s why the best play for both sides is to come together and strike a long-term contract agreement on their own, before an arbitrator ever makes a ruling on whether Graham is officially deemed a tight end or a wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes.

They should find common ground somewhere between $10 million and $11 million per year -- which I absolutely believe Graham is worth, regardless of what position he plays.

I can understand why the Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis would feel confident that Graham’s request to be declared a wide receiver will be denied. I agree with them that Graham is a tight end, even though he lined up 67 percent of the time either in the slot or out wide last year. Tight ends have always been a hybrid between receivers and blockers.

However, there’s no way they can feel completely certain of how an independent arbitrator will rule.

And if the arbitrator rules in Graham’s favor, it would open up a huge can of worms for the Saints.

They would have to increase their one-year franchise-tag tender from $7.035 million to $12.3 million. That would immediately require New Orleans to carve out more than $3 million in salary cap space. New Orleans could do this by restructuring some current contracts.

More importantly, it would become extremely difficult for the Saints to convince Graham to accept a long-term deal worth less than $12 million per year. Graham could choose to play out his one-year deal at $12.3 million, then hit the open market next year. And a training camp holdout would become likely under that scenario.

There’s even a remote possibility the Saints would consider removing the franchise tag altogether if they don’t feel Graham is worth a one-year, $12.3 million deal.

However, that’s not to say the Saints should panic.

Most observers seem to agree that Graham is more likely to be declared a tight end than a receiver. And if that happens, Graham and agent Jimmy Sexton would also lose a great deal of leverage in their long-term contract negotiations with the Saints.

If Graham’s grievance is denied, the Saints could lock him up for two straight years with the franchise tag at costs of $7.035 million in 2014 and $8.44 million in 2015. And the Saints, therefore, wouldn’t have much incentive to offer Graham more than $10 million per year.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, now an analyst for ESPN, offered some insight into what the Saints might be thinking as the hearing approaches.

Dominik believes Graham is a tight end. “My gut is that’s the way the grievance is going to go, because that’s really the position he does play.”

However, Dominik said the Saints will have to at least consider the idea of working out a long-term deal before the grievance is decided.

“I think you would like to get a deal done, just because you want to get a deal done for your organization, for your franchise, for peace of mind,” Dominik said. “But I also think there is that bit in the back of your mind that says if you win the arbitration, then his number is probably a little bit lower than what they want to be.

“Because they're probably trying [to make Graham] the highest-paid tight end, but below the $10 [million] to $13 million the receivers are getting right now. And if you win the arbitration, it gives you a little bit more leverage. But Jimmy’s represented by very good agents, and they’re gonna try to maximize it.”

As nice as the idea sounds, it’s obviously easier said than done for the Saints and Graham to agree on the value of a long-term contract.

Graham will certainly surpass the $9 million per year that the New England Patriots gave Rob Gronkowski in a 2012 extension, the previous high for a tight end.

But how much higher will the Saints be willing to go?

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTeams have had success slowing Jimmy Graham when assigning a cornerback to coverage.
Personally, I think Graham is worth more than $10 million per year. Graham has led the NFL, regardless of position, with 36 touchdown catches over the past three seasons. He has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per season in that span.

That kind of consistent production can’t be dismissed by dissecting where he lines up or whom he lines up against. The business side of these negotiations shouldn't make anyone lose sight of the fact that the Saints and Graham are one of the best marriages in the NFL. He’s been a model player for them on and off the field. He’s a perfect fit with Sean Payton and Drew Brees in an offense that thrives on exploiting mismatches. And he has consistently fought through injuries and continued to produce.

I think Graham belongs in the same class as receivers like Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall, whose deals range from $10 million to $11.2 million per year, the fifth- through eighth-highest salaries among receivers.

Dominik, however, feels there is a distinction between Graham and those top-flight receivers -- something that was exposed last year when teams like the New England Patriots quieted Graham by putting their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, against him.

That’s why Dominik said he would lean more toward basing Graham’s contract off the top tight end deals rather than those second-tier receiver deals.

“I think he’s at the highest point of the tight end market, which is why I think he’s gonna break through and be the highest-paid tight end when his deal is done,” Dominik said. “But I do think the position is gonna be suppressed a little bit in terms of not being a Brandon Marshall or a Vincent Jackson, just in terms of what happened with Aqib Talib and a little bit of that.

“There are a lot of mismatches you can create [with Graham], but there are things that are limitations for him in the run game or when he’s manned up against a very good corner.”

One thing Dominik and I wholeheartedly agree on, however, is this: “It will be extremely fascinating to watch it play out.”
The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder did some interesting research on how New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham fared last year when he was matched up against cornerbacks.

Per Holder's research, Graham caught 20 of the 38 passes thrown his way when he was matched up against cornerbacks -- a 52.6 percent success rate that Holder said would have ranked 91st out of 111 wide receivers.

As a result, Holder argued that Graham's desire to be paid like a top NFL wide receiver "doesn't fit the bill."

I don't completely agree with that thinking, though.

Holder makes a compelling argument -- and one that will likely come up during Graham's grievance hearing next week over whether he should be considered a tight end or wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes.

But as I have consistently written, while I do think Graham should be officially considered a tight end, I think he deserves to be paid like a top receiver. Right in the same ballpark as similarly-productive receivers like Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson and Brandon Marshall, who make between $10 million and $11.2 million per year (which ranks fifth through eighth among all NFL receivers)

Maybe Graham is just taking advantage of the fact he is often matched up against linebackers and safeties. And maybe Graham's lower success rate against corners should encourage teams to try and match up cornerbacks against Graham more often.

But does that make him any less valuable than any other offensive monster in the NFL who has put up the kind of numbers he's put up for three consecutive years (an average of 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per year)?

If Graham were on the open market, I wouldn't be surprised to see him fetch close to $12 million per year for his services.

Normally, I would project the Saints and Graham to agree on a deal worth somewhere between $10 million and $11 million per year -- and maybe they still will do that before the grievance hearing is wrapped up as a way of meeting in the middle.

However, if they play this thing out, the grievance hearing will give the winning side a ton of leverage that could push the price tag in either direction.

Also worth a click:
  • Also from Holder, Saints owner Tom Benson is heading into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame -- a very deserving honor.
  • ESPN.com fantasy analyst Eric Karabell takes an early look at what to watch on the Saints' roster for fantasy purposes this summer in this Insider piece Insider. Karabell does a great job of sifting through the deep receiver and running back groups.
  • The Times-Picayune's Katherine Terrell talked with Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans about fighting through his injury-plagued 2013 season.
  • The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas talked with second-year pro Rufus Johnson Jr. about his desire to make more of an impact this year. The Saints have been using Johnson as more of a 3-4 end in camp this year instead of an outside pass rusher.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees laughed when asked if he thinks guys in the locker room are paying close attention to Jimmy Graham's upcoming grievance hearing over his franchise tag.

Although Graham is missed and players are eager to have him back, they also understand the nature of these types of negotiations.

None more so than Brees, who went through a similar process when he was under the franchise tag two years ago -- complete with Brees' own grievance hearing over whether he should be considered a first- or second-time franchise player.

"I don't know if anybody knows that the hearing date is, when, next week sometime?" Brees said of the hearing, which is scheduled for June 17-18. "I don't think anybody's thinking about it. They're thinking about minicamp, they're thinking about OTAs.

"We all know and love Jimmy, and we know it's going to get worked out at some point, however it gets worked out, no matter the result of this hearing. So when he's here, I know he'll be ready."

Brees said recently that he's been in touch with Graham, checking in on him and making sure he doesn't get frustrated or take things personally during the negotiations.

But at the same time, Brees said the team has to make sure it doesn't miss a beat in his absence -- just the same as if they lost Graham to an injury.

"I'd hate to not have Jimmy," Brees told USA Today. "I'm very confident that a deal will get done. But if it doesn't, you worry about what you do have and who you do have out there. ...

"Look at our numbers over the last eight years. We've had a lot of different guys in there. Jimmy's only been here four years. He's only been here half the time. We were putting up some pretty big numbers before he got here, and we've been putting up some big numbers since he's been here.

"Hey, we do what we do. It's nice when you can have guys like Jimmy, and obviously he's a big part of our offense. If he's in there, we're going to try to get him the ball. We're game-planning ways to get him the ball, ways to put him in the best position to succeed. But if he's not, somebody else is going to get those touches. We'll put those guys in position."
The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas shared the gripping back-story of newly-signed New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jason Weaver.

Weaver, a New Orleans native who prepped at Edna Karr High School, left the area eight years ago shortly after his brother was shot and killed – reportedly in the crossfire of a drug deal. At the time, Weaver and his family thought it was best for him to try and pursue his college education and football career elsewhere.

But now they’re all happy that he’s back in New Orleans, continuing to chase his NFL dream after spending time with Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Miami last year as an undrafted rookie. Weaver said he’s inspired in part by his nephew, Dunstan Jr., who was about 1 year old when his father was killed.

Agent’s take on Graham: Former NFL agent Joel Corry shared his thoughts on the upcoming Jimmy Graham grievance hearing in this piece for CBSSports.com. He touched upon a number of possible scenarios, but his ultimate conclusion is similar to what I predicted in this weekend’s mailbag -- that it’s still likely Graham will sign a long-term deal with the Saints before July 15.

I agree with Corry that even if Graham loses his grievance and is officially declared a tight end for franchise-tag purposes, there’s still a good chance he’ll become the first $10 million-per-year tight end in NFL history. The bigger question mark is how much Graham will demand if he wins the grievance and is declared a wide receiver (which comes with a mandatory one-year salary of $12.3 million).

Corry also points out that the Saints will have to immediately carve out some more cap space if that happens, since Graham’s salary-cap figure would jump by more than $5 million, and they currently only have $1.935 million in cap space. They could accomplish that by restructuring current deals with high-priced players like Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs and Marques Colston.

Corry also breaks down team that he believes could still potentially try and sign Graham to an offer sheet. But I think that’s even more unlikely than it was back in March, since teams would have to be willing to pay around $12 million per year AND sacrifice two first-round draft picks.

Central concern: The Football Outsiders listed the biggest hole on every team’s roster in this piece for ESPN.com that requires Insider access. They went with the center position for the Saints. I still think veteran Jonathan Goodwin will get into the mix at some point. Perhaps the Saints have been waiting until after June 1 because of how veteran signings affect the compensatory-draft-choice formula. But I’m not sure if that’s true since they did spend big on free agent Jairus Byrd and might not qualify for a compensatory pick, regardless.

In the community:
  • The Times-Picayune’s Christopher Dabe caught up with Saints receiver Robert Meachem at a free children’s football camp he hosted with Baltimore Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones. Meachem said he feels “mentally free” now that he’s back in New Orleans, even though he’s under just a one-year, veteran-minimum deal.
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis is starting up a charity foundation and football camp now that his pro career has brought him back to his home area of New Orleans.
  • The third Black and Gold Hoops Challenge, featuring players like Cameron Jordan, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, is set for Wednesday night.

 
Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:

 
METAIRIE, La. -- There were a ton of interesting off-the-field notes coming out of New Orleans Saints camp on Thursday, when the media had its first access to the full team this offseason during organized team activities. Here are some of the highlights:

Graham moonlighting: Jimmy Graham hasn’t been with the team this offseason since he remains unsigned. But he was putting himself to good use on Thursday, helping to win a sailing race in New York to raise $10,000 for his chosen charity, Angel Flight.

Graham used his muscle to help Team Hugo Boss win the pro-am event as part of the IMOCA NYC to Barcelona transatlantic race.

“I am definitely hooked on the sailing now. It is going to be another obsession of mine -- which is good and bad!” said Graham in a press release from the event.

Quarterback Drew Brees was asked if he expected Graham to catch any flak for tweeting out pictures of himself enjoying himself on a boat while the rest of the team was at work on the practice field. But Brees, who went through the same experience while under the franchise tag in 2012, laughed off the idea.

“I do follow him on twitter but I haven't seen that one today,” Brees said. “I stay in touch with Jimmy (Graham) and there’s no doubt in my mind that a deal will get done at some point. He knows it’s part of the process and we’ve had conversations about that. I know that he’ll be ready when it’s time to come, but I’m not worried about Jimmy at this point. I’m confident that he is going to be just fine once he gets here.”

Ryan love-fest continues: Once again, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was caught on camera living it up in his new adopted home of New Orleans last week during the 41st annual Greek Festival -- joining the crowd with his wife in some traditional Greek dances. Ryan, who has also taken part in a Mardi Gras parade and the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day parade this offseason, has spent the past year in a mutual love affair with New Orleans.

He has become beloved for turning around the Saints defense on the field and mingling with the people off the field -- even buying drinks for fans as part of an impromptu postgame tradition at a local bar.

“Yeah, well I’m quite the soft-shoe,” Ryan joked when asked about the Greek festival. “My wife is Greek and honestly she was the best dancer out there. You can look it up, she was dominating out there. I was trying to follow. It’s a lot of fun.

“We love this town, and we plan on doing something special here. We want to be a little tiny part of our success, and I think the town will like us even more this year.”

Brees’ packed schedule: Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan sparked a fascinating conversation with Brees about his jam-packed offseason schedule on Thursday after the media swarm dissipated. Brees seems to be 10 places at once, from his devoted family life (with a fourth child on the way this year) to his countless endorsement appearances to his charity work to his growing Jimmy John’s franchise enterprise to his passing academy -- and the list goes on.

In the past couple weeks alone, he was spotted on a New Orleans balcony with film star and charity partner Matthew McConaughey, speaking at multiple graduation ceremonies and leading the Saints’ contingent to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office in Baton Rouge.

Brees talked about how he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to try and pack in as much as he can before the kids wake up, and he pulled out his monthly calendar, loaded with activities. But he smiled throughout the discussion.

"That's really my personality," Brees said. "If I were just sitting around doing nothing I'd go nuts. That's kind of the way I'm programmed."

Check out Duncan’s full column here.
METAIRIE, La. – For the second time in three years, Drew Brees and his favorite target will be split apart as the New Orleans Saints kick off their summer OTA sessions next week.

Only this time, it’s Jimmy Graham who is holding out while unsigned under the franchise tag. In 2012, it was Brees who missed all of the Saints’ summer practice sessions and workouts.

[+] EnlargeBrees/Graham
Ron Antonelli/Getty ImagesSaints QB Drew Brees, No. 9, said he's confident that star TE Jimmy Graham will be ready to roll when his contract issues with the team are finalized.
Brees, who ultimately signed a new long-term contract in July of that year, said it can certainly be a frustrating process. But he said he and Graham’s teammates understand that it’s the nature of the business – and he’s made sure that Graham knows that, too.

“Yeah, I mean, I didn’t like having to miss. As you’re going through it, you’re like, ‘Gosh, it should be much easier than this, right?'” Brees said Wednesday night while participating in teammate Ben Grubbs’ charity softball game (Graham, not surprisingly, was not in attendance).

“But listen, that’s part of the process,” Brees continued. “It’s a leverage game and it’s back and forth. And the team has a job to do and the player has a job to do in regards to their contract. And so you just understand that that’s the way it is, and you live with it. And when he’s here, I know he’ll be ready to play. I know he’ll be staying in good shape and all those things. I’m not worried about Jimmy Graham. When he comes back, he’ll be ready.”

Graham’s situation is even further complicated by the fact that he was officially franchised as a tight end – and he filed a grievance through the NFL Players Association asking to be declared a wide receiver instead, based on how he’s used in the Saints’ offense.

That grievance hearing is scheduled for June 17-18. And based on the decision from a neutral third-party arbitrator, the difference in Graham’s mandatory one-year salary under the franchise tag would be $7.035 million or $12.3 million.

Or the Saints and Graham’s camp could just split the difference on their own at any point in the meantime. Most likely, Graham will eventually sign a new long-term contract worth at least $10 million per year, making him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.

The deadline for franchised players to sign a long-term contract extension is July 15. After that, they are only allowed to sign a one-year deal.

“We’ve been in contact,” Brees said. “Just checking on him, making sure he’s doing alright and he’s not getting frustrated, you know, disappointed or taking things personal. It’s easy to do that, especially as a young player. You look at your contributions to the team, and [think], ‘Here I am, drafted in the third round, been pretty much playing for minimum here over the last four years. And now this is my opportunity to get compensated based on my production.’

“It’s what every young player hopes that they have the opportunity to go through or get is that second contract. And I know he wants to be a Saint for the rest of his career. I know I want him to be a Saint for the rest of my career. Hopefully we can go at it for another five, six, seven years together and then go out champions together. But I’m confident it will all get worked out when it’s supposed to.”

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