The looming franchise-tag fight between the NFL/Saints and the NFLPA/Jimmy Graham on the question of whether he’s a tight end or a receiver (he reportedly was going to file a grievance “immediately,” but he hasn’t yet) quickly becomes moot if another team signs Graham to an offer sheet.
Once that occurs, only one issue would remain: Will the Saints match the offer within five days? If yes, he’s under contract with the Saints. If no, he becomes property of the team that made the offer.
Of course, the team that made the offer also would be required to send a pair of first-round draft picks to the Saints. In recent days, there has been plenty of reporting, speculation, and debate regarding whether Graham is worth a pair of first-round picks. As the official launch of the ability to recruit and sign Graham approaches, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
First, any team that signs Graham to an offer sheet must have a first-round pick to give. The Colts, therefore, can’t even consider it, since their first-round pick was sent to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson during the 2013 season.
Second, a team that acquires a first-round pick from another team still must send its own pick. The Browns, for example, wouldn’t be able to dangle the first-round pick they acquired from the Colts (26th overall). The Browns would have to send their own pick, the fourth overall in the 2014 draft.
Third, the team could wait to sign Graham to an offer sheet after the 2014 draft, which would result in the 2015 first-round pick and the 2016 first-round pick becoming the compensation, if the offer sheet isn’t matched.
Fourth, while the “poison pill” is no longer available, a team could load up the offer to have a huge cap number in 2014, via a large base salary or roster bonus. That’s a legitimate way to make it impossible for the Saints to match the offer.
With those factors in mind, let’s consider some of the teams that may think about making a run at Graham.
Seahawks: Seattle seems to be the first team that comes up when this topic is broached. As a practical matter, it could create some issues for the defending champions. First, the already have more than $13 million in 2014 cap space devoted to Percy Harvin, for whom they gave up last year’s first-round pick, and more. Second, the Seahawks need to pay some of the guys who have directly contributed to the Super Bowl win. If the players who have been there don’t get paid and outsiders do, it’ll be hard to keep everyone happy.
Packers: It’s not in G.M. Ted Thompson’s DNA to make a big splash in free agency. He’d never give up two first-round picks (or even one) for a player with four years in the league. Besides, the Packers need to invest not in their offense but in their defense.
Cardinals: It’s an intriguing possibility mentioned by Erik Kuselias while I was visiting on Thursday morning the radio show that curiously bears his name. With an extra $9.4 million in cap space from the restructuring of Larry Fitzgerald’s contract, the Cardinals could make the ultimate all-in move by adding Graham. But they’d probably need more cap space in order to come up with an offer that the Saints would have no choice but to refuse.
Patriots: Too much money already has been invested in Rob Gronkowski, even though Graham has proven to be the far more durable player. Like the Packers, the big spending would be more appropriately focused on the defensive side of the ball.
Chiefs: They gave up two second-round picks last year for Alex Smith. Under that standard, two first-round picks for Graham doesn’t seem so crazy. The Chiefs would need to create plenty of cap space before considering such a move.
Browns: While it would be foolish to give up the fourth overall pick (plus their first-round pick in 2015) for Graham, the Browns could be tempted to push their chips to the middle of the table after using their first-round pick in 2014. Signing Graham would be the perfect ending to a period of significant dysfunction, especially if the fourth pick in 2014 ends up becoming their latest quarterback of the future.
Dolphins: This is another post-draft possibility. They’ve got the cap space, but they’ve already committed a ton of money to receiver Mike Wallace. From a business standpoint, they could use the boost that would come from bringing Graham back to Miami, where he played college football.
It remains unlikely that any team would swap two first-round picks for Graham. The Saints likely assume it won’t happen. If they thought it would, they would have applied the exclusive version of the franchise tag to Graham, like they did two years ago with quarterback Drew Brees.