At a time when the situation couldn’t be much better for the 5-0 New Orle-ans Saints, there is one issue that causes unease in the Big Easy. It’s the contract situation of tight end/wide receiver Jimmy Graham, who will be a free agent at the end of the year.
According to multiple sources, Graham is expected to seek a contract in line with what a wide receiver should make. That’s because he actually plays in the slot or outside more than in the traditional tight end spot next to an offensive tackle. The difference is significant. This year, the franchise tag for a wide receiver was $10.5 million. It was $5.9 million for tight ends.
If that’s the case, Graham may have plenty of justification to ask for top-end wide receiver money, in the range of Larry Fitzgerald ($15.75 million average on a deal signed in 2011) and Calvin Johnson ($18.812 million average on a deal signed in 2012).
“The situations are different because Fitzgerald couldn’t be franchised and Johnson had a big cap number the Lions had to get under control,” said an agent who does not represent Graham but was asked to compare the three players and their contract situations. “But if you’re talking about production, yeah, Graham has a really good argument.”
Through five games of his fourth season, Graham has 252 catches for 3,241 yards and 31 touchdowns for his career. He is also off to a career-best start this season with 37 catches, 593 yards and six touchdowns so far. That projects to 118 catches for 1,898 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Even if Graham doesn’t maintain that staggering pace, his stats through four seasons figure to measure up closely to what Fitzgerald and Johnson did in their first four years. Fitzgerald had 330 catches for 4,544 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first four seasons. Johnson had 270 catches for 4,191 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Thus, Graham is in a great position.
The Saints? Not so much.
Such a demand will be difficult for New Orleans to handle. The team already has more than $134 million in salary allotted for the 2014 season. Although $10 million of that can be cut by releasing veteran defensive end Will Smith, the Saints will have a lot of maneuvering to do. The 2014 salary cap will likely be about $125 million.
While the Saints will probably threaten to put the franchise tag on Graham, that number figures to be between $11 and $12 million if Graham is classified as a wide receiver. Last year, Tennessee faced the same situation with tight end Jared Cook and ultimately had to let him go as a free agent because he played more downs at wide receiver.
New Orleans also has several important free agents to deal with aside from Graham, including safety Malcolm Jenkins and starting offensive linemen Zach Strief, Charles Brown and Brian de la Puente.
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