For a couple of reasons, Saints quarterback Drew Brees won’t blame All-Pro Jimmy Graham if he sits out the team’s organized team activities in May and June.
Brees is certain Graham will be ready when he returns, which almost certainly won’t be until his contract situation is resolved. And Brees knows missing voluntary offseason workouts are an inescapable part of high-stakes NFL playing deal negotiations that can drag out well into the summer.
Brees discussed Graham at a charity softball game hosted by Saints guard Ben Grubbs in Metairie on Wednesday night. Brees said he didn’t like missing OTAs when he and his camp were negotiating the $100 million contract he accepted from the Saints in 2012, after he had led the team to its only Super Bowl title and had accumulated two of his mind-boggling four seasons throwing for 5,000 or more yards.
“As you’re going through it, you’re like, ‘Gosh, it should be much easier than this, right?'” said Brees, who didn’t re-join the Saints to prepare for the 2012 season until July of that year. “But listen, that’s part of the process. 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.”
Graham might be bracing to do something similar. After the rookie deal he accepted as a 2010 third-round draft pick expired in March, he was given a franchise tag as a tight end due about $7 million to prevent him from hitting free agency while permitting both player and team to negotiate a new long-term contract.
But Graham filed a grievance through the NFL Players Association that he is owed in excess of $5 million more, arguing that he lined up much more as a wide receiver than as an in-line tight end in 2013. Franchise tags for wide receivers are worth about $12.3 million this year.
Graham would not even play under the tag if he and the team can settle on a new long-term deal before a July 15 deadline. Separately, a June 17-18 hearing date has been set for the grievance.
Any ruling issued by a third party in regards to the grievance would give the winning side significant leverage in arguing how much money Graham deserves in contract negotiations. That’s motivation to get a deal done before then; however, until one happens, Graham is not expected to participate in OTAs, and that doesn’t bother Brees.
“I know he’ll be staying in good shape and all those things,” Brees said. “I’m not worried about Jimmy Graham. When he comes back, he’ll be ready.”
Brees added: “We’ve been in contact, 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, ‘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.'”
Brees said all young players hope that they have the opportunity to go through what Graham is: hammering out a second contract. However, none of it means Graham wants to defect from the Saints, Brees said.
“I know he wants to be a Saint for the rest of his career,” Brees said. “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.”
Graham’s 41 touchdown receptions are fourth all-time and the most for a tight end in the Saints record book.
His 301 catches and 3,863 receiving yards rank sixth and seventh all-time for the Saints, and they’re each tops among tight ends who have suited up for the franchise.
He holds single-season team records for catches (99 in 2011) and receiving touchdowns (an NFL-best 16 last year). He has gone to two Pro Bowls and helped the Saints to the playoffs in ‘10, ’11 and ’13.
His rookie contract reportedly paid him $2.45 million over four years.