NFC South: Jimmy Graham

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.
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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.”
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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.

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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?

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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.”
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.

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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.”
METAIRIE, La. – The grievance hearing over Jimmy Graham’s franchise-tag designation is expected to be held next month, according to New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis.

“I don’t know for sure when the date is. But I have a time frame, and it’s another month,” Loomis said.

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Loomis declined to answer specific questions about the pending debate Saturday. But he did explain that the Saints’ side of the argument (that Graham should officially be labeled as a tight end) is handled by the NFL Management Council.

“Obviously we get consulted and talked with,” Loomis said. “But that’s the management council’s duty.”

Graham’s case (that he should be considered a receiver) will be handled by the NFL Players Association.

The two sides will first agree on a neutral third-party arbitrator to hear the case.

The NFLPA filed the grievance on Graham’s behalf earlier this week. His argument is that he should be considered a receiver since he lined up either in the slot or out wide for 67 percent of his snaps last season.

Graham was declared a tight end by the management council when he was franchised in early March, which required the Saints to offer Graham a one-year tender of $7.035 million. If Graham wins, his required tender would vault to $12.3 million -- the number for receivers.

It’s also possible that the Saints and Graham could work out a new long-term contract extension in the meantime. The deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals with their teams is July 15.
New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said there was no surprise and there were no hard feelings over Jimmy Graham's decision to fight his franchise tag designation.

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Loomis said he wasn't exactly sure why Graham waited so long to file the grievance, asking to be considered a wide receiver instead of a tight end. But it was a move the Saints have anticipated for a while, and he said Graham's camp let him know it was coming last week.

"It's a negotiation," Loomis said during WWL Radio's pre-draft show. "Jimmy and his camp are trying to use every tool they can to get the best deal possible. No one should have hard feelings. It's the nature of these types of things. ...

"As I've said before, we love Jimmy Graham, we love what he's done for us. We want him to be part of our team. And hopefully we'll get something resolved sooner than later."

Other highlights from WWL's annual pre-draft show, which involves interviews with much of the coaching and scouting staffs:
  • Loomis talked more about the different philosophies when it comes to trading up or down in the draft. He was asked about the theory that teams that trade down are better off because the draft is a crapshoot and they get more rolls of the dice.

    "I don't necessarily subscribe to that," Loomis said, explaining that when you're trading up, it's for a specific player that you feel strongly about.

    He said when you sit back and wait to see what comes to you, it can be even more of a crapshoot.

  • Coach Sean Payton was asked about ESPN's Chris Mortensen speculation that the Saints might be interested in drafting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from his alma mater, Eastern Illinois, in the third round. Payton shot it down, saying it's "completely false." He stressed that he likes Garoppolo as a prospect, though.

  • Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was asked about Jadeveon Clowney and cracked, "I hope he falls to us."

  • Player personnel director Ryan Pace was asked about the possibility of being surprised by how much talent remains on the board at the start of Day 3 since this is such a deep class. And he said, "For us, that was Kenny Stills last year."

  • Special teams coordinator Greg McMahon was asked if the team has candidates to replace Darren Sproles in the return game. He said he hates to use the word "replace" since Sproles is such a special player. But he stressed that the team is excited about third-year pro Travaris Cadet, who already showed himself to be an asset as a kickoff returner over his first two seasons.

The best part about Jimmy Graham's decision to file a grievance over his franchise tag? It should light a fire under his negotiations with the New Orleans Saints.

Up until Wednesday, it appeared as though both sides were content to wait until the July 15 deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals.

But now, they should be motivated to work out a long-term deal even sooner.

Otherwise, they'll be putting an awful lot of negotiating leverage in the hands of a neutral third-party arbitrator. And as former NFL executive Bill Polian said on the subject earlier this offseason: “There's an old saying that when you put an issue in the hands of a third party, then there's a possibility that neither side is happy with the result.”

The debate is compelling: The Saints feel Graham should be considered a tight end, which comes with a franchise-tag salary of $7.035 million. And Graham's camp feels he should be considered a wide receiver, which comes with a salary of $12.3 million.

But that debate doesn't really matter. If the two sides can agree on Graham's value, they don't have to worry about the label.

As I've written before, I believe Graham should be considered a tight end. But I also believe he deserves to be paid like a top-10 wide receiver based on his production and his value to the offense.

So go ahead and call Graham a tight end -- or a “hybrid,” as quarterback Drew Brees likes to say. But pay him what he's worth. Maybe something like $10.5 million per year.

Regardless of what that specific amount is, it would behoove both Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and Graham's agent Jimmy Sexton to figure it out on their own. Because even though they both believe they have strong cases in the tight end/receiver debate, neither can be assured of how an arbitrator will rule.

The argument for a wide receiver designation is based on where Graham lines up. Last year, he spent 67 percent of his snaps either in the slot (45 percent) or out wide (22 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. And he led the Saints in every receiving category with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

However, the Saints will counter that lining up in those spots is part of the tight end's job description.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Graham was one of three full-time tight ends who spent more than 50 percent of his snaps off the line last year – along with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Another eight starting tight ends lined up in traditional receiver positions at least 45 percent of the time.

When asked if he considers Graham a tight end in January, Loomis said, “Isn't that what we drafted him as? Isn't that what he made the Pro Bowl as? That's what we see him as, a tight end. … That's what makes him valuable.”

The specific timetable for a hearing hasn't been laid out yet. A neutral arbitrator will be agreed upon by the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council. Then a hearing date will be set.

In the past, only one such hearing has ever taken place -- when the Baltimore Ravens and Terrell Suggs debated over whether he should be considered a defensive end or linebacker. But even then, the two sides worked out a compromise before the arbitrator made his ruling.

So while it would be fascinating to see how an arbitrator rules in Graham's case, it would be just as fascinating to see if the two sides allow it to get that far.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees joined ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd on "The Herd" Thursday to discuss his thoughts on the Saints’ schedule and their offseason roster moves, among other topics.

Brees laughed when Cowherd asked him the popular offseason question about whether Jimmy Graham is a tight end or wide receiver. “I hate this question,” Brees said.

But the two wound up having an intriguing conversation about Graham’s unique skill set, and Brees said he loved Cowherd's comparison to NBA star LeBron James.

“Honestly, he’s a hybrid,” Brees said of Graham. “He’s revolutionizing that position. So he's kind of his own class.”

Brees was promoting a unique raffle he’s doing with Xbox to benefit his Brees Dream Foundation. Brees will fly anywhere in the continental United States to have dinner with the winner and 11 friends.
AVONDALE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints began their offseason conditioning program this week with tight end Jimmy Graham still unsigned. But it’s still too early in the year for anyone to be concerned about his absence.

Graham is not expected to participate in the Saints’ workouts since he’s not under contract. Although the Saints placed the franchise tag on Graham, he hasn’t signed the offer yet. So he’d have to sign a waiver to participate.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Ric TapiaSeeking a long-term deal with the Saints, Jimmy Graham could miss a big portion of the team's offseason workouts.
Saints coach Sean Payton seemed to indicate Wednesday that he doesn’t expect that to happen when asked if he anticipates Graham joining the team for any workouts.

“I think it’s pretty normal. I think everything the first week was pretty much as expected,” said Payton, who spoke with the media before teeing off in the pro-am at the Zurich Classic PGA tournament.

It’s also highly possible that Graham could miss the Saints’ OTAs and minicamp practices in May and June while the two sides continue to negotiate over a long-term contract extension.

The important deadline is July 15. After that date, franchised players can only sign one-year agreements with their teams. History suggests that the standoff could last right up until the deadline (as was the case with quarterback Drew Brees’ deal when he was franchised in 2012).

Brees spoke confidently about Graham’s situation while appearing on "The Dan Patrick Show" on Wednesday. Brees said he is confident a deal will get done “very soon.”

However, Brees seemed to be speaking in general terms rather than giving any specific insight that a deal is close.

Among other topics Payton discussed Wednesday:

  • He said the team has not yet made a permanent decision on whether to exercise the fifth-year option on running back Mark Ingram’s contract, which would require the Saints to pay him $5.2 million in 2015. The Saints have until May 3 to make that decision, though it seems unlikely that they will. The Saints already exercised their option on defensive end Cameron Jordan earlier this week.
  • As usual, there was a full-team meeting to kick off the offseason program on Monday. Payton said that’s typically just used to lay out the summer calendar through the start of training camp. He said there hasn’t been much football talk yet. “Really, I think it’s important that in the early stages of all this that the players, when they come to the facility, they feel like they’re coming to lift weights and condition,” Payton said. “There’s so much time for football and X's and O's and all of those other things. Really, it’s just encouraging the way the weight room looks. We have a new nutrition cafe, a lot of different elements that go into just being in really good shape.”
  • Payton said he believes the Saints’ first preseason game at the St. Louis Rams will be played on Friday, August 8 -- though the specific date hasn’t been announced yet. He said the team will likely open training camp at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia with conditioning tests on Thursday, July 24.
  • Payton said he doesn’t mind the draft being pushed back this year because it’s beneficial for the team to get more time to study film on players. But he said the longer wait might be “more stressful to the player because I think players then visit more teams, there’s more workouts, they’re pulled a little bit more than maybe normally.”
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.

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.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
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.

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