Either one would be moot if the two sides agree on a new contract, which is why Graham’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, is hanging around New Orleans after the hearing on Tuesday and Wednesday. It makes sense for both sides to give a little and come up with a contract somewhere in the middle that would make Graham the highest-paid tight end in the league and give the Saints maneuvering room with the Salary Cap.
Graham’s $7 million number currently counts against the cap, but that number could be lowered in the first two years of a new contract with some of the creative ciphering that GM Mickey Loomis is known for. I understand that Graham would like to be qualified at the higher number, but there is no way he wants to be defended like a wide receiver. Anybody who paid any attention to those 2013 games in which defenses assigned their best DB to Graham know that swift defenders like the Patriots’ Aquib Talib and Seattle’s Richard Sherman shut Graham down like last month’s grocery bill.
In last season’s 30-27 loss to New England, the Pats held Graham without a catch for the first time in 46 games, dating back to the middle of his rookie season. In other losses last season, Graham caught only two of six balls thrown his way at St. Louis, three of nine thrown at him in the Monday Night blowout at Seattle and only one of six chances in the playoff loss to the Seahawks.
No, it’s much better for Graham when he is covered by a linebacker like most tight ends draw. Both sides have interesting positions that appear on the face to have merit. The Players Association, arguing on behalf of Graham, has focused on the specific language of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, basing the tag designation (and calculation) on the position “at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.”
Graham lined up outside the traditional tackle box, either in the slot position or at wide receiver, for 67 percent of his total plays in 2013. Thus, the language appears to provide a simple, clear and persuasive argument for Graham. However, the NFL Management Council, representing the club, is trying to shift the discussion from the CBA language to a deeper referendum on league-wide use of the tight end. They are presenting evidence to show Graham, Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski and others increasingly split out to create matchup advantages. Their positioning according to scheme, should not change their designation for tag purposes. The League lawyers also have stressed Graham’s official positional designation since entering the league. He played tight end in college, was drafted as a tight end, is listed on the roster and depth chart as a tight end and was voted to the Pro Bowl as a tight end. He attends team meetings with tight ends and even lists himself as a tight end on Twitter.
The entire brouhaha is similar to the Saints’ negotiations with Drew Brees two years ago in a similar franchise tag dispute, resolved in Brees’ favor. But either ruling gives the Saints some leverage since they still hold the player’s rights for a year, but the Saints are hoping that Graham, like Brees, set a goal of long-term security. Some observers believe the Saints will wait until the July 15 deadline, and then make their best offer as they did with Brees. I think it could happen as early as this week. An offer from the Saints with as much as $20 million guaranteed might not meet Graham’s demand of $30 million guaranteed, but he would be hard-pressed to turn down that level of security compared to one-year earnings at either number.
My book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is available at Amazon.com and at my website: www.JWMillerSports.com