NFC South: Jimmy Graham

BATON ROUGE, La. -- New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis shot down the notion Wednesday that the Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham will aim to strike a new deal by the middle of this month.

A report by Pro Football Talk last month cited a source as saying the two sides would try to reach a long-term contract agreement before the April 22 deadline for Graham to file a grievance over his franchise-tag designation. Graham was officially designated as a tight end, though it’s expected that Graham and agent Jimmy Sexton will file the grievance to argue that he should be considered a wide receiver based on where he lined up most often last season.

“Look, I’m always optimistic. But there’s no deadline here,” Loomis said when asked if that April 22 date was being used as a target.

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Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints continue to work toward a long-term deal.
Loomis, who spoke to the media while attending LSU’s pro day, declined to give any specific updates on how talks are developing with Graham. But he seemed to indicate that the pace hasn’t picked up much since the Saints first placed the franchise tag on Graham more than a month ago.

When asked for the most rational way for fans to look at the situation, Loomis cracked, “Well, when does training camp begin?”

“I don’t have an answer for that,” Loomis continued. “That’s a two-way street. You know, you guys [in the media] have been through this lots of times. I think all of us would rather have things done sooner rather than later, but it doesn’t always happen that way. So we’ll keep going, well keep at it in the process. Obviously we want to have Jimmy Graham on our team when training camp begins, and I am sure he wants to be with us.

“So we’ll just keep plugging away at the process. He’s got a great agent. And all his people, they know what they’re doing, and so do we. Hopefully we’ll come to a conclusion at some point.”

Saints owner Tom Benson gave a similar response during the NFL meetings last month when asked about the timetable for a new Graham deal, suggesting that he wouldn’t be surprised to see talks drag out like they did with franchised quarterback Drew Brees until July two years ago.

However, the potential grievance could throw a wrinkle into things.

If Graham does file a grievance, then his case would eventually be heard by a third-party arbitrator, who would be agreed upon by the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association. If that arbitrator agrees that Graham should be considered a wide receiver, his franchise-tag salary would soar from $7.05 million to $12.3 million.

That decision would give one side tremendous leverage in its long-term contract negotiations. So it remains possible that both the Saints and Graham’s camp would ultimately prefer to work out a deal on their own terms before it reaches the point of an arbitrator’s decision.

One way or another, Graham will almost certainly become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing Rob Gronkowski’s $9 million average with the New England Patriots. The biggest question is whether Graham’s deal will be closer to $10 million per year or $12 million.
Credit the folks over at SaintsReport.com for pointing out that Jimmy Graham didn't have the best celebration dunk in New Orleans Saints history.

Nope, that honor belongs to former cornerback Curtis Deloatch, who scored the touchdown after Steve Gleason's legendary blocked punt in the 2006 Superdome re-opener after Hurricane Katrina.

Not only was it one of the most legendary moments in franchise history, but Deloatch's reverse jam was also pretty sweet on its own merits. Check out the replay here.

Not to diminish Graham's body of work, however. The Saints put together a video of all of Graham's 2013 dunks.
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New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton seemed to agree with the notion that Jimmy Graham shouldn’t be labeled strictly as a tight end.

The Saints officially placed the franchise tag on Graham as a tight end earlier this month. But when asked Wednesday if he’s surprised that Graham would be interested in receiving “wide receiver money” in his next contract, Payton said: “I think that's a byproduct of a little bit of an antiquated system with regards to franchise numbers. I think those will be, over the years, revisited and adjusted."

Of course, Graham and his camp may have to force the issue if the two sides can't agree on a long-term contract extension within the next month. So far, Graham hasn’t filed a grievance to challenge the tight-end designation. But he must do so by mid-April if he wants to be declared a wide receiver instead.

That deadline could certainly speed up the long-term negotiations between the two sides.

One way or another, Payton stressed Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., that he is confident a deal will get done eventually -- calling it a matter of “when, not if.”

And if a deal does get worked out in the short term, Payton pointed out that the tight end/receiver debate ultimately won’t even matter.

“We're all optimistic,” Payton said. “It's really a matter of getting through this process, and (Graham's agent) Jimmy Sexton, (Saints general manager) Mickey Loomis, those guys have a great relationship. I think our fans are smart enough and understand there's always some time involved.

“This one's a little uniquely different in regards to the position classification, and yet that still may not even be an issue."
Owner Tom Benson expressed confidence that his New Orleans Saints will be able to close the deal on two of the biggest issues facing his franchise and city this offseason -- re-signing tight end Jimmy Graham to a long-term contract extension and bringing the Super Bowl back to New Orleans in 2018.

Benson met with the New Orleans media during the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday. Here are recaps from The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.

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AP Photo/Ric TapiaSaints owner Tom Benson expects the Saints to come to an agreement with Jimmy Graham eventually.
Benson joked about the Graham negotiations, saying he might have to "kick him a little bit" or bring in his secret weapon to close the deal -- his wife, Gayle. On a serious note, Benson admitted the talks could take a while like the Saints' talks with quarterback Drew Brees in 2012. But the owner said he was confident an agreement will be reached eventually.

"He's a hell of a good player, but he's also a good person," Benson said. "I'm confident we'll work out something. We just have a little bit of time to do it, that's all."

As for the Super Bowl, New Orleans would seem to be a leading contender to bring the game back for a record 11th time. The other candidates to host Super Bowl LII are Indianapolis and Minnesota. The decision is expected to be made at the next set of league meetings in May.

Benson said he doesn't believe the infamous "blackout" inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII will hurt New Orleans' chances after the rest of the week was so successful.

"I feel good about it. You never know, but I feel real good about it. I plan on being there shaking a few hands just to make sure," Benson said. "I think that everybody likes New Orleans. New Orleans is known as a party town, but hey, we put on a good show for everybody."

Loomis also complimented general manager Mickey Loomis for the way he has managed the Saints' tight squeeze against the salary cap, including the recent signing of free-agent safety Jairus Byrd.

Benson, Byrd on Wilson: Benson and granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc issued statements on the passing of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson on Tuesday. Benson called Wilson a "valued friend and colleague" and said the NFL "lost one of its visionaries today."

Byrd, who spent his first five seasons with the Bills, posted a message on social media: "R.I.P. Mr. Wilson. Thank you doesn't describe how truly grateful I am for the opportunity you have me to play a game I love."

Payton on Graham, Cadet: Saints coach Sean Payton hit on a variety of topics during an interview with Cox Sports TV's Mike Nabors on Tuesday. Regarding Graham's contract talks, Payton said, "I think everybody involved in the process has handled it well." And he added, "I anticipate when we start up for training camp for Jimmy Graham to be ready to go."

Among other topics, Payton suggested that third-year pro Travaris Cadet could take on "a little more of that role" that runner/receiver Darren Sproles has played in the Saints' offense over the past three years.

I don't expect a huge leap for Cadet, since I think the Saints also want to find ways to get more touches for fellow running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But it makes sense to hear Payton express that confidence in Cadet. Payton singled out Cadet a few times late last season as someone he was trying to work into the offense at times.

Payton will speak for a full hour with the media Wednesday morning at the league meetings. Stay tuned for some early-morning updates since he begins speaking at 7:15 a.m. ET time.

Saints get a ‘B': A panel of ESPN NFL Insiders handed out free-agency grades for every team. The Saints earned a B, which ranks among the 10 best grades in the NFL (though the division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew the highest grade).

Analysts Bill Polian and Louis Riddick both mentioned the lofty price tag for Byrd, but they both said they expect him to make a big impact.

Rex on Rob: New York Jets coach Rex Ryan explained why his brother Rob and the city of New Orleans are such a good fit for each other in this Times-Picayune notebook. Also included is Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's thoughts on newly signed Pittsburgh receiver Lance Moore.

Baby girl for Brees: Brees said that he and his wife, Brittany, will finally have their first baby girl while guesting on E’s “The Chelsea Lately” show. They’re expecting their fourth child in August. They have three sons: Baylen, Bowen and Callen.
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The “No Fun League” strikes again.

The goal-post dunk will now be prohibited by the NFL -- a deflating rule change that might only be considered a victory for helpless crossbars around the country. As for the players and fans around the league, the rule elicited a resounding groan.

No team will be more affected by the rule than the New Orleans Saints. Not only will Saints fans miss out on Jimmy Graham’s trademark touchdown celebration roughly 12-to-15 times a year, they’ll also miss out on those fun occasions where Graham goads his buddy Drew Brees into proving he can still slam the ball over the crossbar despite Brees' 6-foot frame. Graham tweeted out a photo of an in-season dunk being blocked by a ghostly ref with the comment, "I guess I'll have to lead the @nfl in penalties next year! #funpolice," but subsequently deleted the tweet.

Listen, I do understand the reason for this particular rule. I was there in Atlanta last season when one of Graham’s power jams tilted the crossbar and forced a delay of game while workers came out with a super-sized level. Maybe that’s not the kind of drama that football fans are looking for.

But how about this? Let’s only penalize the players when they actually bend the goal posts. Make it a dunk-at-your-own-risk rule.

Really, I’m not that worked up about the rule change (my personal campaign for the last decade has been to remove the archaic chain system for measuring first downs). But I'm more surprised than anything by the NFL's hasty reaction to last year's "goalpost malfunction."

I find it almost shocking that a league that spent weeks promoting its new Pro Bowl format by trying to show off the personalities of stars such as Brees and Graham is now trying to mute those same personalities.

Of all the positive rule changes being discussed at the league meetings this week -- including a much-needed revamp of the replay system -- this is what’s getting the most attention?

This rule change can’t be a top priority for the NFL, can it?

I’m not sure where I’d draw the line with touchdown celebrations. Personally, I got a kick out of Saints receiver Lance Moore’s rendition of the “Hingle McGringleberry” touchdown celebration from the comedy show “Key & Peele” last season. But I know others whose opinion that I respect were turned off by it.

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AP Photo/Brian BlancoSaints tight end Jimmy Graham won't be allowed to perform his signature touchdown celebration any more.
I also covered Terrell Owens in San Francisco while he was raising his arms through the hole in the roof on the middle of the Dallas Cowboys’ field and when he pulled out the Sharpie from his sock in Seattle. I covered Joe Horn in Louisiana shortly after he pulled out a hidden cellphone from behind a goal post.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of those were more clever than others. And I understand the league doesn’t want to start reviewing them on a case-by-case basis. They’d have to hire Simon Cowell to work in the league office. (Would Cowell’s decisions be reviewable?)

So I’m well aware that there should be some limit to the theatrics.

But the NFL is the most popular, most booming sport in America. They do a lot of things the right way when it comes to marketing their game. And it’s remarkable that they keep allowing that “No Fun League” critique to ring true time and time again.

Someone should throw a flag.
Much has been made of how the New Orleans Saints are pushing millions of dollars in salary-cap costs into future years. And it's true -- the Saints will again be feeling the pressure of a tight cap squeeze in 2015.

But a closer look at the numbers shows the Saints will be in about the same position in 2015 that they were in this year. And the two years before that.

Not better. But not worse.

And after what we've seen over the past three offseasons, does anyone doubt the Saints' ability to live on the edge of the salary cap?

It helps quite a bit that the NFL's cap is expected to keep soaring. This year, the cap rose from $123 million to $133 million for every NFL team. And analysts project similar increases during the next two years as the revenues from recent TV deals kick in.

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Elsa/Getty ImagesThe cap hit for Drew Brees will increase from $18.4 million in 2014 to $26.4 million in 2015.
As of today, the Saints have a total of 39 players under contract for 2015 at a combined salary-cap cost of $124.7 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, that doesn't include any figures for tight end Jimmy Graham or defensive end Cameron Jordan. Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract this offseason, while the Saints are expected to lock up Jordan later this spring with a one-year option for 2015 (see below).

Those new deals should push the Saints' 2015 cap costs closer to $140 million for 41 players. And that projection will continue to rise as the Saints sign more players or restructure more contracts. Remember, a team's salary cap figure during the offseason includes its top 51 salaries. So even 10 minimum contracts would raise that number to $145 million by the start of the 2015 league year.

So the Saints will have to find more creative solutions to get back under the cap again next offseason. But there is no sense of impending doom or disaster. Just more of what we've been seeing in recent years.

Here's a breakdown of some of the more interesting cap issues facing the Saints in 2015 and beyond:

The big leaps: Two contracts will have huge salary-cap increases in 2015 -- quarterback Drew Brees and newly-signed safety Jairus Byrd. Brees' cap cost will go from $18.4 million this year to $26.4 million next year (because his salary and bonuses will increase from $11 million to $19 million). And Byrd's cap cost will go from $3.5 million to $10.3 million (largely due to a $6 million roster bonus).

Free agents: The good news for the Saints is that most of their core players are already under contract through 2015 (once they get those new deals in place for Graham and Jordan, that is). Other than those two, the top players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year are running back Mark Ingram, linebacker Victor Butler, safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Patrick Robinson.

Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract at some point that should average at least $10 million per year, likely with lower cap costs in the early years. (NOTE: Graham is already counting $7.05 million against the Saints' cap this year because of his franchise tag, so a new deal wouldn't affect the 2014 cap much.)

As for Jordan, the Saints are expected to exercise a fifth-year option on the Pro Bowl defensive end this spring that will likely cost somewhere between $6 and $8.5 million for a one-year deal in 2015. If they exercise that option, Jordan can't become a free agent until 2016.

Big decisions: Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are both scheduled to receive big roster bonuses in 2015 that could force the Saints to make a decision on their status. Lofton has a roster bonus of $4.5 million due in 2015, plus another $2.5 million in salary and workout bonuses. If he continues at his current level, Lofton could well be worth a total of $7 million. But his contract was clearly designed for that to be a “prove it” clause. Hawthorne, likewise, is due a $2.5 million roster bonus in 2015, plus $2 million in salary.

Smaller bounces: The other cap jumps in 2015 are more modest. Marques Colston, Keenan Lewis, Zach Strief and Pierre Thomas are all scheduled for increases between $1 million and $1.4 million. No one else on the roster is scheduled to go up by more than $500,000.

Raising the dead: If you're wondering why the Saints' total cap figure for 2015 isn't higher, remember that they don't have any “dead money” counting against their 2015 cap yet. This year, the Saints have nearly $13.8 million in “dead money” counting against their cap from the pro-rated signing bonuses of veterans that were released before the end of their contracts (Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, Garrett Hartley, etc.).

Free-agency review: Saints

March, 18, 2014
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Byrd
Most significant signing: This one is obvious. The New Orleans Saints landed one of the top free agents on the market when they signed former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract. The Saints defense was already outstanding last year, but Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler who specializes in creating turnovers from the center field position. That's the one element the Saints were really missing on defense last year. Their secondary has become one of the strongest units in the league -- following the blueprint of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

Most significant loss: New Orleans parted ways with several longtime veterans in a calculated effort to invest in younger players. But the decision to trade Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles was the most unexpected. Sproles has been a huge part of the Saints offense as a dynamic runner and receiver out of the backfield. However, it wasn't a complete shock since the Saints backfield is still very deep. And Sproles, 30, has seen his production start to dip a bit the past two years. The Saints received a fifth-round draft pick and cleared $3.5 million in cap space.

Biggest surprise: Byrd and Sproles were both a bit unexpected. But in general, the biggest surprise is that the Saints spent money so aggressively despite being slammed against the cap. They signed Byrd, re-signed right tackle Zach Strief (five years, $20.5 million) and kept running back Pierre Thomas with a two-year extension. All of those deals were cap-friendly in 2014, as the Saints continue with their win-now approach.

What's next? The Saints still have some holes to fill at center, receiver and cornerback. They may consider bringing back center Brian De La Puente or receiver Robert Meachem or finding a bargain-priced veteran at those spots in free agency. Or they could try to add depth through the draft. If they add any more free agents, they will need to carve out more cap space through restructured deals or player releases. The biggest issue this offseason will be working out a long-term contract for tight end Jimmy Graham, who is currently locked up by the franchise tag. That debate could linger well into the summer. But the Saints are already being charged more than $7 million against the cap for Graham's tag, so cap space won't be an issue.

Morning report: Unsigned Saints

March, 14, 2014
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So far, only two of the New Orleans Saints' free agents have signed with other teams. Safety Malcolm Jenkins agreed to a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles right out of the gate Tuesday. Then linebacker Will Herring agreed to a deal with the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.

There hasn't been much activity reported with anyone else so far -- including tight end Jimmy Graham, it's worth noting. Remember, Graham is now free to negotiate with other teams, but they'd have to be willing to give up two first-round draft picks to sign him.

It's certainly still possible that a team will decide to make a run at Graham. But it would appear to bode well for the Saints' chances of keeping him that there hasn't been an immediate recruiting battle.

Meanwhile, it remains possible that the Saints could wind up re-signing players like offensive tackle Zach Strief, center Brian de la Puente, receivers Robert Meachem and Joe Morgan, fullback Jed Collins, quarterback Luke McCown and linebackers Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber. So far there has been only one reported visit scheduled among that group -- Morgan with the Kansas City Chiefs, as first reported by the Detroit Free Press. Multiple reports have the Miami Dolphins showing interest in Strief, though a visit had not been lined up yet as of Thursday.

Former Saints safety Roman Harper visited with the division-rival Carolina Panthers on Wednesday, according to the Charlotte Observer. There have been no reported visits yet for the other veterans the Saints have released (Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Jabari Greer).

Saints didn't pursue Jenkins: In case you missed it, Jenkins told The Times-Picayune on Tuesday that the Saints never made an offer to re-sign him, while the Eagles aggressively pursued him. Jenkins said it was tough to leave the place where he began his NFL career, met his wife and started his family. But the choice was ultimately an easy one.

Jenkins also told the Philadelphia media that he was excited by the leadership role the Eagles were offering -- and admitted he needs to improve his tackling.

Worth repeating:
  • I loved WDSU television reporter Fletcher Mackel's reference to a term he stole from the Netflix series “House of Cards” when he referred to the Saints' moves this offseason as “ruthless pragmatism.”
  • NewOrleansSaints.com reporter John Deshazier also had a great line on the Saints' surprising pickup of safety Jairus Byrd on Tuesday, calling it a “game-changing pick six.”
  • FOX 8 reporter Sean Fazende pointed out that the Saints have now signed players to contracts that were the richest in NFL history at the time for a safety (Byrd), a quarterback (Drew Brees in 2012) and a guard (Jahri Evans in 2010). And they'll almost certainly sign the richest tight end deal in league history with Graham at some point.
Worth a click:
  • Deshazier also caught up with Saints running back Pierre Thomas, who said it “means a whole lot to me” that the Saints signed him to a two-year extension.
  • The Saints' site posted a video tribute to running back Darren Sproles after he was traded to the Eagles.
  • ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert broke down why Sproles is a perfect fit for the Eagles' offense.
  • Sports Illustrated analyst Andy Benoit had a detailed breakdown on why he thinks the Saints will be fine without all of their departed veterans.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tweeted his displeasure with the Saints' latest roster cuts on Friday evening:

Obviously that tweet is dripping with irony, since Graham is a big reason for the Saints' current salary-cap quandary. The Saints placed the franchise tag on Graham last week, which came with a $7.05 million salary-cap hit. And Graham is believed to be seeking well over $10 million per year in a long-term contract.

However, I don't blame Graham for his contract desires – just like I don't blame quarterback Drew Brees for his average salary of $20 million per year. Those guys are elite players with astronomical market values. But that doesn't necessarily mean there is a direct cause and effect between their salaries and the others.

I think it's telling, though, that Graham's tweet came out shortly after the latest news of Darren Sproles' pending release. That one surprised me more than all of the others, too. The Saints also released receiver Lance Moore earlier on Friday.

The Saints' flurry of offseason moves is clearly tough for a lot of people to swallow -- fans and teammates alike.

Free-agency primer: Saints

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

.Key free agents: TE Jimmy Graham (franchised), RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, WR Robert Meachem

Where they stand: The New Orleans Saints have a limited amount of cap space. But they should be able to make room to re-sign one or two of their own starters (in addition to Graham) and add one or two newcomers. The secondary should be a top priority after they released veterans Jabari Greer and Roman Harper last month. The Saints should be in the market for a cornerback who can come in right away and start -- and maybe a safety, too, if they don’t re-sign Jenkins. The offensive line will become a priority if they don’t re-sign Strief or de la Puente -- although they could address that in the draft. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker, although those spots also could be addressed in the draft.

What to expect: First and foremost, I ultimately expect the Saints to keep Graham on a long-term deal, although it could be a drawn-out negotiation. Beyond that, I expect a very similar approach to last year, when the Saints lost one key free agent (left tackle Jermon Bushrod), signed one high-priced free agent (cornerback Keenan Lewis) and added some nice depth at value prices (linebacker Victor Butler and tight end Benjamin Watson). My best guess is they keep one of their two starting linemen and add a starting-caliber cornerback (maybe in the range of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown or the Carolina Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn).
The speculation is mixed on whether another team will make a run at free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham since the New Orleans Saints used the non-exclusive franchise tag on him. But I think it's hard to imagine a scenario where Graham leaves New Orleans.

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Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesIs tight end Jimmy Graham worth as much as $12 million a year and two first-round picks?
Graham will be allowed to negotiate with other teams, starting Tuesday. But another team would have to both outbid the Saints on a long-term contract offer and be willing to sacrifice two first-round draft picks to pry him away. The Saints would have the right to match any offer Graham signs elsewhere.

For one thing, Graham is happy in New Orleans by all accounts. He presumably wants to stay with Sean Payton and Drew Brees -- as long as the Saints make a competitive offer on a long-term contract. Another team would probably have to offer something around $12 million per year to outbid the Saints.

As I've written several times, I think Graham is worth an awful lot. No matter what position he plays, he ranks right up there with the top five or 10 receiving weapons in the NFL today. If he was an unrestricted free agent, I could definitely see a team being willing to spend that kind of money on him on the open market.

But I would be surprised to see a team willing to pay that kind of money and two first-round picks for any player other than a small handful of franchise quarterbacks.

That's why the Saints used the exclusive franchise tag on Brees two years ago, to prevent him from even talking with other teams. In this case, however, I wasn't surprised the Saints felt comfortable using the non-exclusive tag on Graham.

Still, all it would take is one team that really covets Graham to make things interesting. And much stranger things have happened in the NFL before.

Reports have been mixed on whether it's possible. ESPN's Ed Werder tweeted over the weekend that "One NFL personnel exec told me he could envision a team with franchise-type QB pursuing [Graham]. Seahawks have need, fit criteria."

However, NFL business analyst and former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt tweeted, "Teams are not giving up two #1 picks for a single player. They are among the most valuable currency in the NFL, treasured assets."

Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman had conflicting opinions from NFL officials. He said several general managers believe a handful of franchises are preparing offers to get Graham. He quoted an AFC general manager as saying, "I think the only players more valuable than Jimmy Graham are three or four quarterbacks. That's it."

However, he also quoted a Packers official as saying the idea of Green Bay pursuing Graham is "dumb beyond dumb ... won't happen."

If another team does sign Graham to an offer sheet, then it would be the Saints who need to decide if they want to match that offer or sacrifice the chance at two additional first-round draft picks. That would be a tough choice. But I think it's unlikely they'll be presented with that scenario.
Members of the New Orleans Saints have been staying busy during their "down time" this offseason -- including tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Graham is spending the week visiting troops in the Middle East, along with Miami Dolphins kicker Brandon Fields and Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon. You can see photos from his trip here at NewOrleansSaints.com.

Said Graham: "This experience for me has truly been life-changing. The personal connection I've been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day."

Meanwhile, Ryan served as the grand marshal of the Krewe of Argus’ Mardi Gras parade in Metairie on Tuesday. Ryan, who donned a Drew Brees jersey, braved the wet and windy conditions to enhance his reputation as a man of the people in New Orleans.

Jimmy Graham, Saints are both right

February, 28, 2014
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I agree with the New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham is a tight end.

And I agree with Graham's camp: He should be paid like a top wide receiver.

One of the more fascinating contract debates in recent NFL history was officially set in motion Friday when the Saints placed their franchise tag on Graham. His agent is expected to quickly counter with a grievance that claims Graham should be labeled as a wide receiver instead of a tight end, which would mean a projected franchise-tag salary of $12.3 million instead of $7.04 million.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNew Orleans should avoid arbitration and pay Jimmy Graham at least $10 million a season.
The winner of that debate will also earn a massive amount of leverage in long-term contract negotiations. So Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and agent Jimmy Sexton will have to be willing to play an expensive game of chicken if they leave that decision in the hands of a neutral, third-party arbitrator, whose ruling will be tough to predict.

As far as I know, I'm not eligible for the arbitrator job. But I'll go ahead and offer my two cents on the multimillion-dollar topics of the day:

1. I believe Graham is a tight end. True, he lined up for 67 percent of his snaps in the slot or out wide last year. But that's part of a tight end's job description -- especially in the modern NFL.

That was the same ratio last year as future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (whose salary is used to help calculate the franchise-tag figure for tight ends, by the way). And many of the NFL's top tight ends today spend at least 45 percent of their snaps in those traditional receiver positions.

The collective bargaining agreement states that the franchise-tag designation is based on the position "at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year." But how do you define when a player is lining up at tight end? To me, it's a combination job -- sometimes lining up as a blocker, sometimes as a receiver. Wide receivers, on the other hand, spend close to 100 percent of their snaps out wide or in the slot.

2. As long as I've anointed myself as the arbitrator, I'll also declare that the two sides should scrap the franchise-tag debate and agree on a long-term deal worth at least $10 million per year.

If it weren't for the franchise tag, the debate over what position Graham plays wouldn't matter a lick. Call him whatever you want -- a tight end, a receiver, a hybrid, a matchup nightmare. If he were free to go to the highest bidder, his unique skill set would probably fetch something in the area of $12 million per year.

That would put Graham in the ballpark of receivers such as Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson. It sure seems like he fits in that group to me.

Unfortunately for Graham, though, the franchise tag prevents him from hitting the open market. The Saints can actually use the tag on Graham for up to three years (which would require raises of 20 percent and 44 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively).

But even with that leverage, the Saints should recognize that Graham has earned at least $10 million per year. That would make him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing the $9 million average of Rob Gronkowski's 2012 extension with the New England Patriots.

All you have to do is look at Graham's numbers to see that he's worth it. His 36 touchdown receptions over the past three years are the most in the NFL, regardless of position. And he has averaged 90 catches and 1,169 yards per year during that span.

Yes, Graham was kept quiet during the playoffs this past season, with a total of four catches for 52 yards against Philadelphia and Seattle. But both opponents clearly made Graham their No. 1 priority, with safeties such as All-Pro Earl Thomas spying on him. And that has value, too, as the Saints proved by running for 185 yards while the Eagles sat back in coverage.

Even more than his value on the field, Graham has also been a model player for the franchise. He has repeatedly played through injuries -- some significant, including a wrist injury in 2012 and a partially torn plantar fascia in 2013. And he never publicly complained or threatened to hold out while playing out his rookie contract as one of the best bargains in the league over the past four years.

I expect the contract talks to drag on for a while because they are so groundbreaking. It's reminiscent of two years ago, when the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees waited until July to make Brees the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time.

The only thing that could speed this process along is that fear of turning over that crucial decision to a third-party arbitrator. That's probably why similar debates -- tight ends Jared Cook and Jermichael Finley the past two years and linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs in 2008 -- never reached the point of an arbitrator's decision.

No matter how long it takes, though, I ultimately expect the two sides to reach a long-term deal. I expect Graham to stay in New Orleans -- and to keep revolutionizing the tight end position -- for years to come.
METAIRIE, La. -- We’re now one week away from the deadline for NFL teams to place the franchise tag on players. So sometime between now and March 3, the great debate over whether the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham should be considered a tight end or wide receiver will officially kick off.

Graham
I checked in recently with NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt -- a former executive with the Green Bay Packers and a former agent -- to see if he had any inkling how that debate might play out. Like most everyone else on the subject, Brandt said it’s too hard to predict what an arbitrator might rule.

“It’s new to me, too,” said Brandt, who pointed out that his former team had a similar case after he left with tight end Jermichael Finley in 2012 -- and they agreed to a meet-in-the-middle compromise before their debate reached an arbitrator.

Brandt said he could understand the argument for calling Graham a receiver by strictly reading the language of the collective bargaining agreement, which says the franchise tag designation is based on the position “at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.” Graham lined up 33 percent of the time against the line last year, 45 percent of the time in the slot and 22 percent of the time out wide.

But Brandt said he also believes the Saints have a strong argument that Graham's versatile role matches the modern job description of a tight end.

“It’s more about the definition of the tight end in 2013 than where he lines up on every play,” Brandt said. “So that’s gonna be interesting.”

If Graham is considered a tight end, the Saints can maintain his rights by offering him a one-year franchise-tag salary that is projected to be around $6.8 million this year. However, Graham’s camp is expected to file a grievance through the NFL Players Association, asking a third-party arbitrator to rule that he should be considered a wide receiver instead. That would require a one-year franchise-tag salary of around $11.6 million.

That's a significant difference. But Brandt said the bigger issue is how the franchise tag will affect the negotiations on a long-term contract.

“Listen, the way I see this whole thing is the tag number is a temporary dispute. The real issue here is the long-term deal,” Brandt said. “And when you negotiate a long-term deal, like any negotiation, you come up with comparables. To me the bigger issue here is not the tag, but when they are negotiating, are they using (the contracts of tight ends) Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates? Or are they using (receivers) like Larry Fitzgerald and Percy Harvin? That’s the question I have. I think the tag issue is kind of a red herring issue.”

Gronkowski is the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, with an average salary of $9 million per year -- ahead of guys like Jason Witten, Davis and Gates, who earn a little more than $7 million per year. Conversely, the NFL’s four highest-paid receivers (including Fitzgerald and Harvin) earn at least $12 million per year.

Brandt said a favorable ruling on the franchise tag would certainly give one side a great deal of leverage in the long-term negotiations.

Either way, though, Brandt believes the franchise tag itself is a great leverage tool for all NFL teams.

“I think the franchise tag, even at the high level, is an incredible management weapon,” Brandt said. “It takes your best free agent off the market. And you get to June or July and guys looking at a one-year deal or whatever you want to offer long term. People look at the franchise tag as just about holding a guy for a year. I think the bigger issue is giving you leverage in negotiations.”

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