An Arbitrator May Determine Jimmy Graham’s Long-Term Future


When attempting to project the landing spots of 2014’s top free agents a few weeks back, I predicted that the result of the inevitable grievance that Jimmy Graham’s camp will soon file would determine his fate.

The Saints slapped Graham with the nonexclusive franchise tag as a TE.  A TE who plays under this one-year deal would make $7.035 million. Graham, however, wants to be paid the $12.312 million franchise figure assigned to WRs. And according to the wording of the CBA, Graham seems to have a legitimate argument:

“The Nonexclusive Franchise Tender shall be a one year NFL Player Contract…at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.”

ESPN Stats & Information shows Graham lined up in a traditional wide receiver position (in the slot or out wide) 66.8% of the time.

The Saints will likely counter this point by arguing they drafted Graham as a TE, and that the NFL’s evolution into a passing league creates the need for TEs to play as a receiver.

Ultimately, an arbitrator will have the final call, and the arbitrator’s verdict may determine whether or not Graham signs an extension.

If Graham signed the 2014 TE tag today the Saints would be about $1.5 million under the $133 million cap. Coincidentally, the cap space required for the Saints to sign their 2014 rookies is also about $1.5 million, meaning they’d be just on the fringe of the 2014 salary cap if they made no further moves.

But if Graham ends up winning his appeal and receiving the WR tag, the Saints would have to make some roster moves to clear up cap space. They’d surely do this to make room for Graham, but would lose all negotiating leverage in the process.

The CBA stipulates that if a team tags a player twice in a row that player gets a 20% raise from Year 1 to Year 2. A 20% increase from $7.035 million (the TE franchise tag number) is $8.442 million.  This means the Saints could tag Graham both this year and next for a total of $15.477 million.

But a 20% increase from $12.312 million (the WR franchise tag number) is $14.774 million. New Orleans 2015 cap situation—like their 2014 cap situation—is not great. They currently have $114,089,329 tied up in 2015 contracts, so this second scenario would greatly inhibit their ability to sign Graham to a long-term deal now.

A $12.312 million one-year salary would probably incentivize Graham to become a free agent again in 2015. I estimate that Graham is targeting a deal in excess of 5-years/$60 million with greater than half of that guaranteed. His $12.312 million 2014 salary would net him around 30-40% of the guaranteed money he’d receive with a new deal. Unless he suffered a significant injury at the end of this coming season, chances are he’d end up exceeding the amount he’d make if he signed a deal now (at least in terms of guaranteed money) as an UFA in 2015.

While the possibility of incurring a serious injury is risky, it’s a risk Graham may take. Plus, $12.312 million is nice insurance—especially considering he’s made just $3.3 million over his first 4 years.

I also mentioned the unlikely possibility of a team surrendering two first round draft picks to pry Graham away from New Orleans. A few people have inquired about the specifics of these draft picks, and whether a team could trade back in the next two drafts and surrender those picks to New Orleans.

According to the CBA, the draft pick compensation for non-exclusive franchised players is treated the same way as draft pick compensation for restricted free agents:

“…and the Restricted Free Agent’s Prior  Club shall receive from the New Club the Draft Choice Compensation, if any, specified in Section 2 above of this Article. Any Club that does not have available, in the upcom­ing Draft, the selection choice or choices (its own or better choices in the applicable rounds) needed to provide Draft Choice Compensation in the event of a timely First Refusal Exercise Notice may not sign an Offer Sheet in such circumstances.”

“Its own or better choices in the applicable rounds” means the idea of trading down before signing Graham is not allowed.

Andrew Cohen