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
  • Anthony

    I have a tough time imagining that the saints and the NFL want anything to do with an arbiter’s decision for this contract matter. The evidence for Graham’s case is nearly insurmountable. He lines up outside more frequently, his numbers are on par with a high caliber wide receiver, and if the argument on the saints is… that’s not what we drafted him as, well that’s irrelevant. Dudes switch positions all the time, that doesn’t have any impact on their contract status years into the league.

    What happens if the arbiter sees that under the tag all offensive linemen, running backs, outside linebackers, defensive ends, regardless of scheme get tagged under the broad distinction of their general position and chooses to simply create the label “outside pass catcher.” If WR and TE were merged into a single position (which works with and not against the saints description of what a modern TE does).

    I don’t think the Saints or the NFL want anything to do with this case and I think graham will be paid well.

  • NW86

    As hard as it is for the Saints to admit, I’m afraid they may have to face the fact that, with the state of their salary cap going forward, they may not be able to keep both Brees and Graham on that team past 2014. They can restructure and finagle enough to keep Graham for 2014, but when Brees’s cap hit goes up to $26.4M in 2015, and with all the other restructured contracts and potential dead money that they already have in other players, I don’t think it’s feasible to keep them both. Another restructure/extension for Brees isn’t really feasible at this point in his career. They could ask him to take a pay cut, but he has proven to be a stubborn negotiator when it comes to his contracts (as evidenced by the landmark deal he is playing under now) and I don’t see him agreeing to it.
    If they do keep both Brees and sign Graham, they will likely end up like the Cowboys, with so much dead money wrapped up in their top few players that they can’t fully build a team around them for years to come.

    • I think they are helped immensely by the new cap estimates in place. As long as teams stay reasonable in their salaries and dont jump to mimic the cap increase New Orleans now has a chance to be ok. But I pretty much said exactly what you are saying last year in that they are refusing to make any moves that might break parts of the team up for financial flexibility.

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  • Adam Prasifka

    I think the best argument for the saints is “did he ever put his hand down?” because WR do not ever put their hands down.

    • Thats the take I had as well on the podcast. If his split is 60/40 on wide versus tight I can guarantee you any WR is 100/0. At some point I think the NFL should do a better job defining it and if it takes a grievance case so be it. My guess is the way the position has developed that if you compare Graham to Gronkowski, Davis, Witten, etc…his participation is much closer to theirs than it would be Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe. I think that is how you define a Tight End in the NFL, not how many yards off the line he played on some downs.

      Not all receiving stats would seem to be created equal either. Victor Cruz has been more productive than Wallace, Bowe, and so on but the position and role he plays on the Giants is not valued as highly nor would there be as big of a market for him outside of NY due to various things that are expected out of “slot” guys which he doesnt really do. Look at Welker. For years you could put his numbers up against anyone but the compensation would never be as high and he ended up taking $6 mil a year in Denver after being a bargain for the Patriots for ages. Just because Graham “puts up numbers” like a wide receiver doesn’t mean a team will necessarily pay him $11-$12 million a year like a top line wideout.

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