After seeing the title of this piece, if you are still reading, then I assume that you've put away your pitchforks and your burning oil. Well, at least until you've heard me out.
Entering week seven of the current NFL season, with his New Orleans Saints on a bye week, Jimmy Graham led the entire league with 593 receiving yards on 37 receptions and was third in the league with six touchdown catches. These stats include Graham not recording a single catch in the Saints last game against the New England Patriots.
Now in the last year of the rookie contract he signed in 2010, Graham has indisputably become the best tight end in the NFL. That means that his agent Jimmy Sexton will be looking for him to become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history this upcoming offseason.
Until then, that distinction belongs to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who received a six-year $53 million dollar contract in 2012, including $16.5 million guaranteed.
As the season progresses, things are going to get interesting (read: tricky) for the Saints as far as Graham's contract is concerned. A couple of days ago, Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune reported that the Saints had sent their latest offer to their talented tight end and his camp about two months ago. New Orleans was given the cold shoulder by Sexton and his team.
Graham will undoubtedly drag these negotiations into the off-season, which will likely force New Orleans to hit him with the franchise tag.
With the tag, the Saints will have the exclusive rights on Graham, keeping him from hitting the open market. The team could then work with him on a long-term deal. This is where I believe that the Saints should explore the possibility of trading the best tight end in the NFL.
During Sean Payton's tenure in New Orleans, the Saints have had the number one ranked offense in the NFL four times (2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011). Graham played in only one of those seasons (2011).
Last season, New Orleans had the second ranked offense in the league, yet the team had a miserable 7-9 season amidst the turmoil of the NFL suspensions related to the bounty scandal. One of the main reasons for the 2012 failure was undeniably the terrible quality of the Saints defense (dead last in the NFL).
Since 2006, the Saints have proven that they will always have an exceptional offense, spearheaded by a great quarterback spreading the ball around and keeping defenses on their toes. The key words here are: "spreading the ball around." The Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints haven't needed and do not need the best tight end in the league to be a topflight offense.
What has been missing in the Big Easy during the Payton era is a stout defense, year in and year out. This year, thanks to its improved defense, New Orleans is 5-1 after six games. Last year they were 2-4 at the same junction.
Once Graham is tagged by the Saints, New Orleans will almost certainly receive a lot of calls from teams around the league inquiring whether they would be willing to trade him, as unlikely as that would be. That is what NFL teams do, especially for a player of Graham's caliber.
The question is: what would these teams be willing to give up in acquiring such a player?
Let's look for instance at the draft of Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, who the Falcons picked sixth overall in 2011. Jones, like Graham, is a game-changer. He is the number one receiving target on his team and he too is considered by many to be the best at his position.
Atlanta gave up its 2011 first round pick (27th overall), second round pick (59th overall) and fourth round pick (124th) for the Cleveland Browns' first round pick (sixth overall) which they used to take Jones.
As if that wasn't enough, the Falcons also sent their first and fourth round pick in the 2012 NFL draft to the Browns as part of the same deal.
For the mathematically-challenged (like me) that is five draft picks that the Browns received. Five! Including two first-rounders.
Could the Saints receive a similar offer for Graham in the passing-league that the NFL has become? You bet they could. Should they listen to it? You bet they should.
Drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round last year was one of the best defensive moves New Orleans has made in a long time. The rookie has been a regular contributor to the defensive resurgence from day one and has made plays all over the field.
However, to further bolster their secondary, the Saints could definitely use a young cornerback to eventually replace incumbent Jabari Greer who is getting up in age.
On the defensive line, although it has been much improved, drafting a playmaking pass rusher to play opposite emerging defensive end Cam Jordan could turn a good Saints defense into a great one.
Keep in mind that linebacker Victor Butler who has been out with a knee injury and was a big off-season acquisition by the Saints could return later this year and should be available at full-speed next season.
On the other side of the ball, New Orleans could also be looking to draft an offensive lineman for an offense that has struggled both in run blocking and pass protection.
New Orleans lost their second round picks in 2012 and 2013 due to the bounty scandal sanctions. They also "lost" their first round pick in 2012 with the ill-advised draft day trade with the Patriots to acquire underachieving running back Mark Ingram. By trading Graham this off-season, 2014 could be a year in which the Saints end up with a bounty of draft picks and some amazing options to build their team for the long run.
Trading Graham would be an absolutely unpopular move in New Orleans. The Saints' fan base has a love affair with the affable and gifted Graham, who embodies what we would like to see in all NFL stars: greatness, yet humility. However, the NFL is a business: the business of winning, not just today but for years to come.
If the Saints can keep the emotion out of it and have the guts to momentarily disappoint their loyal fan base, they will consider the possibility of trading Graham this upcoming off-season. If you want my opinion, they should not only consider it, they should do it.