The Jimmy Graham Contract Conundrum

Jamie Squire

Saints fans are hoping for the best. But the Saints have put themselves in a spot where they may have to pay their tight end like a top 5 wide receiver.

Jimmy Graham is no ordinary tight end. If anything, he is extraordinary. But we all know that. The proof is on paper and is shown on the field.

These are the stats after the first 4 seasons of each tight end's career. This is Jimmy in comparison with 2 of the most productive tight ends of this era.

PLAYER RECEPTIONS YARDS TOUCHDOWNS
Jimmy Graham 301 3,863 41
Tony Gonzalez 261 3,041 24
Antonio Gates 265 3,378 34

The overall numbers aren't even that close. All 3 tight ends went through mediocre first seasons while becoming more involved in year two. Gonzalez seems like a lock as a future hall of famer and Gates is certainly on that path himself. Yet, Jimmy has started his career better in all three categories. Looking at these numbers, one can certainly say that Jimmy Graham deserves a huge contract in 2014.

But let's look deeper into this. Let's take Jimmy's last three years as a full time starter and compare them to the five biggest total contracts amongst WRs in all of football. The numbers below reflect these player's production from 2011-2013. I also included their contract figures.

PLAYER RECEPTIONS YARDS TOUCHDOWNS CURRENT CONTRACT
Jimmy Graham 270 3,507 36 ??????
Calvin Johnson 302 5,137 33 7yr, $113,450,000
Larry Fitzgerald 233 3,163 22 7yr, $113,000,000
Andre Johnson (2011 injury, so 2010, 12-13) 307 4,221 17 7yr, $67,800,000
Percy Harvin (2013 injury, so 2010-12) 220 2,512 14 6yr, $64,245,000
Mike Wallace 209 2,959 21 5yr, $60,000,000

I think that we can all admit that Jimmy Graham is producing comparably amongst the top 5 paid WRs in all of football. While Calvin Johnson may be on another planet yardage wise and Andre Johnson may be the closest thing to Megatron overall, Jimmy's numbers actually dominate 3 of the 5 highest paid WRs in the league. Ironically, once upon a time, Andre Johnson owned the richest contract among WRs when he signed his deal in 2010. The rest of the deals are more recent, and none of them average less than $10.7 mil per season.

So Jimmy and his agent Jimmy Sexton have this to base their negotiations upon. Forget whether he has played in the TE or WR position more, Jimmy Graham has become the focal point of this offense. Notice that he is 3rd in receptions, 3rd in yardage, and 1st in TDs among the highest paid guys at wide receiver over their past 3 healthy seasons. If Jimmy were to seek Mike Wallace money (5 years, $60 mil), it's hard to argue that he wouldn't deserve it. And that creates a problem for the Saints and the future of this franchise.

Assuming that the Saints get a deal done with Graham that is comparable with his actual peers in production, let's take a peek at how some of the Saints players will be paid in 2015. Assuming that the Saints would lock up Graham to a blockbuster deal, it's fairly likely that the first year would have to be one of the lower years in terms of season salary.

2015 Cap Hits:

Drew Brees: $26,400,000

Jahri Evans: $11,000,000

Marques Colston: $9,700,000

Ben Grubbs: $9,600,000

Curtis Lofton: $9,000,000

Brodrick Bunkley: $6,112,500

David Hawthorne: $6,100,000

Keenan Lewis: $5,850,000

Lance Moore:$5,568,750

Yes. Without Jimmy's salary and what would be a free agent year for defensive end stand out Cam Jordan, NINE players would cost the Saints $89,331,250, which would make up about 70% of the total cap space allowed for this team. This is that moment where it sucks to have long time veteran players on a dynamic offense, because all of those pieces deserve to get paid because of their big stat contributions but at the same time, you have to pay quality defensive players to stick around as well.

This exercise is another reason why I feel that Lance Moore (and possibly Bunkley) has to go. Jimmy Graham has to get his money. His production has done all of the talking and negotiating that it needs to do. So how will the Saints make all of this work? Do the Saints risk depth for the opportunity to sign one special player who has put up special stats?

Whatever ends up happening, it would be wise for the Saints to not play games with this franchise tag stuff. It seems like this team would only be delaying the inevitable. Jimmy Graham will definitely be the highest paid TE in NFL history, especially since his numbers compare with the elite at WR. Either this team needs to make Graham and his huge contract fit, or it needs to find another guy capable of taking over football games.

Mickey Loomis, it's time to earn your paycheck. Good luck sir.

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