What Now? Graham Camp All But Out Of Options


Note: I will be talking about the Graham situation on WWL New Orleans (AM870, FM105.3) at 7:20PM EST tonight. You can listen live here 

The franchise tag—a staple in the NFL CBA since the early 1990s—benefits the owners and handicaps the players.  This is not a revelation nor classified information; both sides are fully aware of what the tag can do.

Yet over the past twenty years, the true force of the tag has never been fully realized. The reason for this is that while the tag locks a player into a one-year deal, that player is at least well compensated for that one year. More often than not, this truth allows the tag to act as a “holder”—where a player is held off the open market—until a long-term deal supersedes the franchise tag.

For the first time, Graham’s situation depicts just how harmful the tag can be. Graham—who has averaged 90 catches/1169 yards/12 TDs since becoming a full-time starter three seasons ago—is a tight end. He’s by no means a traditional tight end; he has more touchdown receptions than anybody since 2011, and has played a major role in transcending the position. But at the end of the day he’s still a tight end. And when it comes to the numbers associated with the franchise tag, that’s all that matters.

Position2014 Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag
Quarterback$16.192 million
Defensive end$13.116 million
Wide receiver$12.312 million
Cornerback$11.834 million
Offensive lineman$11.654 million
Linebacker$11.455 million
Defensive tackle$9.654 million
Running back$9.54 million
Safety$8.433 million
Tight end$7.035 million
Kicker/punter$3.556 million

As I mentioned yesterday, placing the tag on a player for a second time equates to a 120% salary increase. Tagging somebody a third time is almost  “not allowed”–the cost is the top five average salaries for the highest paid position.

YearFranchise Tag Price
2014$7.035 million
2015$8.442 million
2016>$20 million

Ultimately, this means New Orleans could lock in Graham for a combined $15.4 million through 2016. Graham could then become a free agent in 2016, but he’d risk suffering a serious injury (possible) or a miraculous loss of skill (unlikely). He’d have only year-to-year security if he chose to go this route, and would near 30 years old at that point.

Graham has reportedly been adamant about his deal exceeding Rob Gronkowski’s in terms of total money ($54 million), average annual salary ($9 million) and guaranteed money ($13.17 million). Truthfully, he has every right to be. Gronkowski, who had just turned 23 when he signed that extension in June 2012, still had two years left on his rookie deal. Furthermore, the salary cap was $13 million less than it is now, and industry experts were expecting it to remain at that level for the foreseeable future (they were of course wrong).

But because of the omnipotent franchise tag, Graham is all but out of options. He can try and force a trade or hold out, but that may ultimately cause more harm than good. While it won’t be the deal he’s looking for, his best option in terms of securing long-term financial stability is to sign a long-term deal now.

I’m by no means throwing the stud tight end a pity-party—he’ll still pocket millions of dollars. But there’s no question that the franchise tag swiped millions more from his pocket.

Andrew Cohen