As a tight end, Jimmy Graham would have made $7 million this year under the franchise tag. As a receiver, he would have made $12.3 million.
The deal that the Saints had put on the table months ago would have paid Graham $9.5 million per year. Which roughly splits the difference between the two numbers.
But when the real numbers come out — not the generic reports of “guaranteed” money that isn’t really guaranteed and/or “up to” values that don’t reflect what the actual value of the deal — it will be important to look at three key factors.
1. How much money is fully guaranteed at signing?
With Graham poised to get a fully-guaranteed base salary of $7 million with the stroke of a pen, the rules would have entitled him to a crack at the open market next March or a 2015 guaranteed salary of $8.4 million. Which means that, if he had avoided a serious injury in 2014, he would have gotten at least $15.4 million over the next two years.
Anything less than $15.4 million in fully guaranteed money at signing, then, would be regarded as a not-so-good deal. Anything less than $7 million fully guaranteed at signing would be viewed as a horrible deal.
2. How much money will Graham make over the first three years?
Once upon a time, contracts carried signing bonuses so large that, as a practical matter, the team wouldn’t cut the player for at least three years. Which made the three-year value of the contract a key number.
In recent years, teams have shifted to pay-as-you-go guaranteed money that isn’t really guaranteed, giving teams an annual opportunity to cut the cord, Kaepernick-style.
Even if Graham won’t get a franchise-quarterback signing bonus in the range of $30 million, his expected three-year haul will be intriguing because he could have opted to go year-to-year under the franchise tag, making $15.4 million in the next two seasons and then hitting the open market in lieu of being tagged at the quarterback level, possibly landing $20 million or more in fully guaranteed money on top of the $15.4 million already earned.
That’s $35.4 million in hand between now and March 2016. How much he’ll actually earn through the 2016 season needs to be compared to that.
3. When must the Saints make an annual keep-or-cut decision?
The Graham deal possibly will have a structure that pays him significant guaranteed-for-injury-only money in future years, with a date each offseason when the money becomes fully guaranteed. The earlier the deadline, the better for the player.
The best deadline comes at the start of the waiver period immediately after the Super Bowl. The next-best deadline comes at or about the start of the league year in March. The worst deadline comes several weeks later, like on April 1 or thereafter.
So once the real numbers come out — not the phony, preliminary, puffed-up numbers — we’ll break it all down from the perspective of those three factors.