Sandwiched between tight ends Rob Gronkowski (round two) and Aaron Hernandez (round four) in the 2010 draft was tight end Jimmy Graham. A third-round pick of the Saints, Graham was the last tight end selected before Hernandez.
The Saints took Graham with pick number 95, and the Patriots took Hernandez 18 spots later. In between, four receivers were selected — Mardy Gilyard (Rams; no. 99), Mike Williams (Bucs; no. 101); Marcus Easley (Bills; no. 107); Jacoby Ford (Raiders; no. 108).
It’s unknown whether the Saints wrestled with the choice of taking Graham or Hernandez. The red flags were well known, and Hernandez’s history easily could have been a factor. But Graham’s limited football career likely was an issue, too. He played only one year at Miami. Hernandez was the far more established and experienced player.
Regardless of how the Saints made their decision, they settled on Graham. Of the three tight ends, he’s the only one still laboring under his rookie deal.
From Gronkowski’s injuries and surgeries and party-boy tendencies to Hernandez’s legal entanglements, Graham is looking like the best of the bunch. And the Saints need to acknowledge that with a long-term deal.
To his credit, Graham hasn’t groused. But if the team and the player can’t work out a multi-year contract, a franchise-tag fracas could be coming over whether Graham is a tight end or a receiver, given the number of times he lines up in the slot.
The best way to avoid that outcome would be to get a new agreement negotiated, and the best time to do it would be sooner rather than later. The cap is a problem for now; according to NFLPA records, the Saints currently have roughly $5 million in total space. But with all of their draft picks signed, the Saints wouldn’t have to clear much space to do a long-term deal with Graham, since the signing bonus would be spread over multiple seasons.
Graham’s refusal to make a stink, publicly or privately, about his status puts less pressure on the Saints to take care of him. In turn, however, this attitude proves that Graham is far more worthy of the security than Hernandez, and possibly even more worthy than Gronkowski.