Two years ago, the Saints signed quarterback Drew Brees to a deal worth $20 million per year. The agreement came as the annual July deadline was arriving to sign franchise players to multi-season contracts.
That’s often how business is done in the NFL, in the final moments before midnight.
Sometimes, it’s not easy to determine when midnight arrives. For the Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham, there are three possibilities.
First, the Saints could regard midnight as the March 3 deadline for applying the tag, if the goal is to sign Jimmy Graham and avoid the potential ugliness of a fight regarding whether Graham is a tight end or a receiver for franchise-tag purposes. The Saints could cobble together a long-term offer that splits the difference between the high end of the receiver market and the high end of the tight end market. Graham, who has made third-round money since 2010, could have a hard time saying “no thanks” to an offer that reflects a value higher than what he could expect if the Saints’ position that he’s a tight end for tag purposes prevails.
Second, the Saints could treat midnight as the days before a decision is issued on the question of whether Graham is a tight end or a receiver. The outcome will boil down to a butting of the heads between practicality and the plain language of the labor deal, which contemplates an accounting of the total snaps where a player lines up without regard to anything else, including the position applied by the team or the meeting room the player regularly enters. At that point, a hybrid offer from the Saints would be hard for Graham to reject, because no one will be able to tell him with certainty that his position will prevail.
Third, the Saints could make their offer in the final days preceding July 15, like they did with Brees. But that approach likely guarantees Graham will skip the offseason program — like Brees did in 2012.
In 2012, Brees filed and won a grievance that increased his leverage by determining that the Saints would have to give him a 44-percent raise over his 2012 franchise-tag salary if he were tagged again in 2013, based on the notion that tags used on a player by other teams stack. That fight was unexpected, and the Saints’ position seemed to be a lot stronger. So the Saints could have a more clear incentive to work something out with Graham before a decision from a third party backs them into a corner.
There are two potential wild cards at play here. One, Graham already may be determined to push the issue that he’s a receiver to conclusion before doing a long-term deal. That would make any effort to sign him before the tag is applied or the issue is resolved useless. Two, regardless of whether he’s tagged as a receiver or a tight end, a team that picks low in round one in 2014 (and expects to do so again in 2015) could try to sign him to an offer sheet worth more than the Saints would or could pay — gladly giving up that pair of low-round picks to get him.
While it would be a shock for any franchise player other than a quarterback to be signed to an offer sheet, the Jimmy Graham saga could have plenty of twists and turns and surprises over the coming weeks.
We know he’ll get paid a lot of money. How much and when — and possibly by whom — are the biggest questions.