Saints will hand franchise tag to Jimmy Graham before Monday deadline, he confirms

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ--  New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) dunks the ball over the goal posts after his first quarter touchdown as the New Orleans Saints defeats the Tampa Bay Bucs 42-17 in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ– New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) dunks the ball over the goal posts after his first quarter touchdown as the New Orleans Saints defeats the Tampa Bay Bucs 42-17 in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

The Saints will use their franchise tag on All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham before Monday’s deadline to prevent him from hitting the open market in free agency, he said on his verified Twitter account. Earlier, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the move was coming, though it wasn’t listed on the official NFL transaction wire.

That’s really no surprise — since at least January, the Saints have publicly said they’d tag Graham if they couldn’t hammer out a long-term deal by Monday’s tag deadline.

 

 

The Saints haven’t commented on the matter, but there are two types of tags New Orleans can hand Graham: exclusive or non-exclusive.

An exclusive tag prevents Graham from negotiating with other teams. If he doesn’t agree to a new contract from the Saints and plays under the tag in 2014, Graham will receive a one-year salary equal to an average of the top five players at his position.

There’s also a non-exclusive tag. Cheaper than an exclusive tag, it permits him to negotiate with other teams and even sign an offer sheet; but the Saints would be afforded a week to match. Should the Saints opt against matching any offer, they’d be entitled to two first-round draft picks from the other team.

A salary under a non-exclusive tag is determined by calculating the average tag numbers at his position in five prior years.

Projections estimate that a franchise tag could be worth $5 million more for a tight end than for a wide receiver. That massive difference in pay is why many assume Graham — who spent most of 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints — will file a grievance through the players association to be classified under the tag as a receiver and not as a tight end.

The determination of how Graham should be paid under the tag would, in that case, be in the hands of a neutral third-party arbitrator settled upon by the players association and the NFL Management Council.

Graham might never play under the tag. Quarterback Drew Brees got an exclusive tag in 2012, and defensive end Charles Grant had a non-exclusive one five years earlier. Brees and Grant signed long-term deals before playing under the tag, however.

Recent media reports have stated the Saints are willing to give Graham more than the $9 million per year New England tight end Rob Gronkowski makes. Gronkowski at the moment is the NFL’s highest-paid tight end. But reports are that Graham and the Saints are still several million dollars per season apart from a contract that would replace the one he accepted from the team as a rookie in 2010 and has played out.

Graham has made it known it wouldn’t please him to be tagged, telling NFL Network at the 2014 Pro Bowl it’d be “real unfortunate.”

“I’m not keen on the franchise tag, … but that is really all I have to say about that one,” Graham said.

But he’s also made remarks that might assuage the anxiety his contract status has caused in Saints fans. At a local charity event appearance in the middle of February, he called Brees “my guy.”

“He always will be,” he said.

It certainly appears the Saints and Graham could be in for negotiations resembling those that involved Brees, which didn’t result in a new deal until July of that year.

Salary cap-wise, the Saints headed into Friday with an estimated figure of $125 million. Later Friday, the NFL notified teams the 2014 cap will be $133 million, higher than initial estimates of $126 million. New Orleans, therefore, doesn’t have too much economic flexibility; but it has more than it once thought it did, and it’s already talked to some of its free agents other than Graham about extending their tenures with the team.

No offseason storyline for the Saints has been as important as retaining Graham. He opened the 2013 campaign on a tear, hauling in 10 touchdowns and amassing 746 receiving yards in the Saints’ first eight games, of which they won six. He surpassed the 100-yard threshold in five of those games, including four straight from Weeks 2 to 5.

However, in a Week 6 loss to the New England Patriots, he didn’t catch a pass, and he sustained a foot injury. He then hurt his elbow in a Week 9 defeat at New York.

As he played through the injuries and opposing defenses built their schemes around limiting him, Graham’s productivity wasn’t as spectacular. In the final eight regular-season games, he caught six TDs, tallied 469 yards and reached 100 yards just once.

In the postseason, Graham had three catches for 44 yards during the Saints’ wild-card win at Philadelphia, but he managed only one grab for 8 yards — which came in the final seconds — in a divisional-round loss at Seattle, who eventually won the Super Bowl.

Graham nonetheless led the NFL in TD receptions and the Saints in receiving yards.