Jimmy Graham’s Value & the Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag

When dissecting the NFL’s top Tight End’s, there’s Rob Gronkowski & Jimmy Graham—and then there’s everybody else. Gronk and Graham have redefined the TE position, so it’s no surprise that the 6-year/$54 million extension that Gronkowski signed before the 2012 season is being floated around as a baseline for Graham’s new deal.

Rob Gronkowski Contract Specifics


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However, Graham is rightfully looking to surpass Gronk’s deal. Here are some of the reasons why:

Timing of deals: Gronkowski signed his extension after his second year in the league; he still had two years remaining on his rookie deal at the time of the extension. If hindsight’s 20/20, it seems Gronk made a phenomenal financial decision, as he’s suffered multiple serious injuries in the past couple of years.

But Gronk’s decision to extend his contract when he did (with two years remaining on his rookie contract) meant that his leverage in negotiations was sapped.  If Gronkowski were a free agent after his monstrous 2011 campaign (as Graham is now), he would have received a much bigger deal than he did.

Salary Cap: When Gronk was extended two years ago, the salary cap stood at $120.6 million.  Since then, it has increased by greater than 10% to $133 million (and could go up even more in the next couple of years).

Injury history: While Gronkowski didn’t miss a game in either of his first two seasons, his injury history still may have played a role in his 2012 negotiations.  He was just a few years removed from the back surgery that caused him to miss his junior season at Arizona in 2009 (which was the only reason he fell to New England in the second round of the 2010 draft.)

And although some may also label Graham as “injury-prone”, they’d be better off simply labeling him as “extraordinarily tough.”  Despite a wrist injury in 2012 and a partially torn plantar fascia this past season, he suited up for every game but one over the past two years.

Both Gronkowski and Graham are superb talents who are nearly un-guardable in the red-zone. While Gronk is a superior blocker to Graham, keep in mind that Graham does not come from a football background (he began playing organized football in 2009 after playing four years of basketball for the University of Miami), so this area of his game can still improve (and according to his Pro Football Focus blocking grades, Graham is not a complete liability as a blocker).

It’s unlikely that Graham and the Saints come to an agreement anytime soon, as they reportedly still remain far apart in talks. The Saints placed the franchise tag on Graham as a TE, while Graham’s camp will file a grievance to have him tagged as a WR (the difference in these numbers is an enormous $5.3 million).

But it’s important to note that the Saints placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Graham, which is defined below (click here for a complete overview of the franchise tag).

Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag– This is the most common tag that is applied in the NFL. The value is determined using five prior years of data to determine the percentage of the salary cap that a top 5 player at the position should occupy. This player can still negotiate with other teams but if they sign with another team the team that applied the tag has the option to match the contract or accept two first round draft picks as compensation.

Two first round draft picks plus a market-setting contract is a huge price to pay for any player, especially when that player doesn’t play QB. Picks at the beginning of the first round are of course more valuable than late first round picks, so the possibility of a team snagging away a non-exclusively franchised player is only ever associated with teams who hold late 1st rounder’s (and by associated, I mean by the media; we’ve never actually seen a team go through with this).

But there are two teams who this could make sense for.  While admittedly unlikely, let’s look at the possibility.

NY Jets— The Jets hold the 18th pick in the first round this year (for reference on pick values, this is the chart that front office execs use when determining the value of their draft picks for trade purposes.) Once the Jets rid themselves of Santonio Holmes, Mark Sanchez and Antonio Cromartie in the coming days, they’ll have more 2014 cap space than they’ll be able to spend.

In a draft as deep as this year’s, Gang Green will certainly have the opportunity to get a great talent at 18. The Jets might have the worst set of skill-position guys in the league, so it’s likely that they draft a WR or TE at this #18 (the super-athletic Eric Ebron has been associated with the Jets, but my guess is he’ll be gone by the time they pick).

Miami Dolphins— Graham could also be in play for the Dolphins. Miami picks 19th in this year’s draft and also has a ton of 2014 available cap space. Their need to add play-making receivers is not as vital as the Jets’, but the Dolphins could still surely find a place for Graham.  If Eric Ebron were there at #19, he would definitely be an option for Miami.

This scenario may actually make more sense for Miami—they have a more secure QB situation, meaning they theoretically have a better chance of 2015 success (decreasing the value of the second draft pick they’d have to give up). Graham also has Miami roots from his college days at UM.

First Round TE’s, Last 10 Years

Pick #PlayerTeam
21Cincinnati BengalsTyler Eifert
21Cincinnati BengalsJermaine Gresham
20Detroit LionsBrandon Pettigrew
30New York JetsDustin Keller
31Chicago BearsGreg Olsen
6San Francisco 49ersVernon Davis
28Jacksonville JaguarsMarcedes Lewis
30Pittsburgh SteelersHeath Miller
6Cleveland BrownsKellen Winslow II
32New England PatriotsBenjamin Watson

There have been just 10 TE’s drafted in the first round of the past ten draft’s.  Of these first rounder’s, only Vernon Davis jumps off the page from a production perspective. Ebron could end up being a great player, but it is of course far from a guarantee that his skill-set will translate to the pro game.

Jimmy Graham gives you that guarantee, as he’s undoubtedly one of the best offensive weapons in football.

Either the Jets or Dolphins could offer Graham $12-$13 million annually over 5 years (let’s say $62 million total). They could give Graham a large signing bonus (let’s say $15 million), while also front-loading the deal. This not only would prohibit New Orleans’ ability to match the contract, but it would not harm the Jets or Dolphins franchise for future years.

A potential contract could look like this, with $40 million guaranteed ($15 million signing bonus plus ’14 & ’15 salaries):

YearBase SalaryProrated BonusCap HitDead Money
2014$17 million$3 million$20 million
2015$8 million$3 million$11 million$20 million
2016$8 million$3 million$11 million$9 million
2017$7 million$3 million$10 million$6 million
2018$7 million$3 million$10 million$3 million

The abundance of 2014 cap space that the Jets and Dolphins hold means either would be able to take on Graham’s cap hit salary for the coming season. But of course these teams would have to give up a second first round selection, and it’s it that second pick that might be the deal breaker.

Andrew Cohen