Two years ago, the Saints used the exclusive franchise tag on quarterback Drew Brees. The higher investment (more on that later) prevented another team from signing Brees to an offer sheet that the Saints couldn’t or wouldn’t match, pilfering Brees for a pair of first-round draft picks.
The move paves the way for another team to woo Graham and ultimately to sign him to an offer sheet. If the Saints can’t or won’t match, Graham would change teams in exchange for a pair of first-round picks.
The question becomes whether a team with a low first-round pick in 2014 and that expects to have a low first-round pick in 2015 would be willing to pay Graham $12 million or more annually for one of the best non-quarterbacks in the league. (In theory, a team could wait until after the draft to make a run at Graham, giving up first-round picks in 2015 and 2016 if the Saints don’t match.)
The Saints presumably don’t believe that another team would pay Graham what he wants and give up two first-round picks; otherwise, the Saints would have used the exclusive version of the tag. Doing so, however, would have raised the stakes on the question of whether he’s a receiver or a tight end, pushing Graham’s maximum tender to the average of the five highest cap numbers in 2014 for receivers, as determined in April.
With the top cap numbers currently belonging to Mike Wallace ($17.25 million), Andre Johnson ($15.6 million), Percy Harvin ($13.4 million), Calvin Johnson ($13 million), DeSean Jackson ($12.75 million), the average would have been $14.4 million — $2.1 million more than the non-exclusive tag of $12.3 million. Restructurings in the coming weeks, however, could have driven the average down considerably.
For example, Larry Fitzgerald’s 2014 cap number dropped from $18 million to $8.6 million last month. If Fitzgerald’s contract hadn’t been restructured, the average would have been $15.45 million. If Wallace or Johnson drop their cap numbers to below Harvin’s, the gap would be much smaller.
Regardless, the Saints have opted to roll the dice on the question of whether another team will break the bank for Graham. If the Saints guessed wrong, and if they choose not to match any offer sheet Graham signs, they’ll have to try to replace him with a pair of first-round picks.