I think the sentiment across the board about Jimmy Graham has pretty much been “why can’t the Saints get a deal done rather than resorting to the franchise tag process”. It looks worse for the Saints in this case because technically Graham plays a low cost position so his franchise tag value is low compared to what any other position on offense would receive. There have been few better values in the NFL than Graham from a cap versus performance perspective and one would assume that ownership would see the numbers that Graham puts up and pay him accordingly with little hassle. So I thought we could take the Saints side of the argument here and look at a few considerations.
The Future Performance Factor
While players usually get paid for what they have done in the past, specifically when moving to a new team, the NFL team will almost always need an eye for the future. Due to the salary cap considerations a bad contract (or at the least an overvalued one) lessens the margin of error that a team may have in the draft or when evaluating other potential signings.
Now I admit it is hard to find comparable players to Graham, but we’ll do the best we can here within his position. Graham ranked in the top 3 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns for a Tight End in three of his first four years in the NFL. That’s pretty much unheard of. In terms of yardage and touchdowns Antonio Gates did that in three of his first four years, though he just missed out on the receptions. Since 1990 I think that Gates was the closest of anyone.
Using yards as a baseline I looked for any players who finished top five at TE for at least two of their first four years in the NFL starting in 1990. There were 11 other players besides Graham who matched the criteria. Those players were Ben Coates, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Eric Green, Todd Heap, Freddie Jones, Randy McMichael, Johnny Mitchell (???), Shannon Sharpe, Jeremy Shockey, and Kellen Winslow, Jr.
Because Mitchell was a head case and seemed to quit the NFL every time he said he wanted to play I pulled him out from the group. I wanted to look at the players’ average stat line for their best two years and then determine the percentage increase or decrease that they saw over the fifth through ninth years of the contract, the years that would represent a five year contract extension for Graham. Here was the average group performance (Year 9 was adjusted to remove Winslow and Green who were both essentially out of the NFL):
The expectation is that the final “prime” type season for the position would likely be the fifth year of the contract, or in this case the franchise tag season. The declines are relatively consistent from that point forward. The only players who would match or exceed their two year high averages in yards were Coates (year 5), Heap (year 5, year 6), Sharpe (Year 5, Year 7, Year 8), Gates(Year 7), and Gonzalez(Year 8). So out of 50 possible seasons, eight saw players match the numbers posted in the rookie years with Sharpe and Heap the only players to do it twice.
Now I don’t think anyone would expect Graham to continue with these numbers but if he is looking to be a player that “breaks the system” by having a salary that much higher than his peers he needs to keep those numbers where they have been at the top of his game. If he followed the average projection his 5 year expectation would be:
These are certainly terrific numbers and they would pretty much place him in the top three for four of his five years, but I don’t think the Saints would consider this to blow the field away by so much that you can justify an $11 million a year contract. Top of the market, sure, but $2 million more than the next highest paid player? Probably not.
The Age Factor
Graham will turn 28 during the course of the 2014 NFL season. That would make his next contract run until he is the age of 32. That is a very different timeframe than most of the other players. At 28 he is the oldest of this group to enter his fifth season. The average age was just 26.1. Many of the players were either out of the NFL or showing more declines as they got into their 30s. Obviously there are exceptions such as Gonzalez, but it would be somewhat of a concern as it could take a year off his useful football life.
The Leverage Factor
The NFL is a business and between owners looking to maximize profits and in turn maximize chances of winning via strong salary cap management, players like Graham are the ones who fall victim to the system in place. Players who are not drafted highly are not rewarded for strong play during their early careers. Some positions are protected from the Franchise tag, but Graham’s is not. If anything it is one hindered by the tag.
No team in the NFL is going to give up two first round draft picks for a Tight End. Actually, other than a Quarterback I don’t know of any position that a team would give up two first round picks for. Graham is essentially locked in and not in a good way. A few weeks ago we would have considered the tag to severely compromise the salary cap strapped Saints, but with a jump of $7 million over the initial projections the tag pretty much was paid for and with an expected increase of $10 million in 2015 the Saints are big winners.
Provided that the league determines that Graham is a Tight End and not a Wide Receiver his salary under the franchise tag will be $7.035 million. If tagged again the following season it will likely be $8.442 million. For Graham that would equal $15.477 million in salary over two years. As a point of reference Antonio Gates earned nearly $21 million in his first two new money years. So the franchise tag situation is going to cost Graham millions of dollars if he would not come down to a reasonable salary for the position.
Furthermore if things did play out that way you are looking at Graham being ready to turn the corner to 30 when his franchise tag period with the Saints would end. Would he break the bank at that point? Probably not. He would need to earn around least $19.6 million in the 2016 and 2017 years to match Rob Gronkowski’s four year salary on a contract signed in 2012.
The bottom line is Graham is never going to get what he wants if he tries to break the Saints in a contract negotiation. Graham had more leverage before the salary cap increases became known and now that leverage he had looks to be gone. The Saints have everything on their side to get him to take a deal that makes him the highest paid but not by a large margin. The Saints have dug their heels in before and will be expected to do the same here.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.