Deadline looms for N.O. Saints, Jimmy Graham to reach accord

No new long-term contract had been announced between the Saints and Jimmy Graham as Monday was giving way to Tuesday, the last day the team and its All-Pro tight end have to strike such a deal in time for the 2014 season.

There’s still time to get a deal done with Graham, whose four-year rookie contract expired this offseason. The deadline doesn’t lapse until 3 p.m. Tuesday.

But it’s officially the 11th hour. And that’s a good time to review some of the worst-case scenarios that could play out if Graham and the Saints can’t reach terms. (Few anticipate he will agree to a deal that doesn’t net him a good bit more than the six-year, $54 million that in 2012 made New England’s Rob Gronkowski the best-paid tight end in NFL history.)

In general, and in order of descending likelihood:

1. If he doesn’t ink a new deal, Graham is not technically under contract for 2014 until he signs a one-season, $7.035 million franchise tag the Saints gave him to prevent him from hitting unrestricted free agency in March. New Orleans can’t fine Graham for skipping out on training camp practices and preseason exhibitions if he isn’t under contract.

So don’t expect to see Graham much during the preseason, if at all. Serious injuries are an unfortunate constant during NFL training camps and exhibitions, and it’s a risk Graham would be smart to avoid. Of the 10 total players on the Saints injured reserve and physically unable to perform lists at the end of the 2013 season, six missed the entire year — and a seventh sat out all but one game — after being hurt prior to Week 1.

However, to collect on the full value of the tag, Graham must be on the Saints 53-man roster, injured reserve or physically unable to perform list from the regular-season opener through Week 17, former NFL agent Joel Corry told The Advocate. He could accomplish that even if he signed the tag a couple of days before Week 1.

That wouldn’t leave much time for Graham to work on timing and rhythm with the rest of the offense, but it’d ensure he was healthy when the meaningful games kicked off, and he’d still earn much more than the average annual salary of $825,000 he made from his rookie contract.

This is similar to what Saints safety Jairus Byrd did when Buffalo offered him a franchise tag ahead of the 2013 season. He signed the tag late, didn’t report to training camp until after Buffalo’s second preseason exhibition and didn’t play in a game until Week 6. Afterwards, though, Byrd tied for the team lead with four interceptions, made a third Pro Bowl and joined the Saints in March in free agency on a massive six-year deal worth up to $54 million.

2. As long as Graham is on the Saints roster, IR or PUP list for six games in 2014, he can count the season as his fifth in the NFL. That means Graham could wait until shortly before the Saints’ Week 12 game at Baltimore on Nov. 24 to sign his tag and join the team without losing the year of tenure in the league.

But it’s hard to imagine he’d do that. For one, Graham would dramatically limit his opportunities to be productive. A productive year would obviously help him in negotiations for a long-term contract in 2015, which his camp can continue to hold after Tuesday (though no agreement could be signed or take effect until next offseason).

More importantly, though, Graham would forfeit approximately 11/17ths of his paycheck (or about $4.55 million) if he held out until Week 12, Corry said. That would be unexpected for someone who pursued a grievance through the NFL players union arguing that he was a wide receiver deserving a 2014 franchise tag of more than $12 million, not a tight end worth some $7 million.

Despite the fact that Graham lined up mostly as a slot receiver in 2013 (when he led the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown catches and was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press), he was found to be a tight end by the grievance’s arbitrator. The arbitrator arrived at the decision in early July after hearing testimony from Saints coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis that — among many other things — Graham was defended by opponents and treated by New Orleans like tight ends normally are.

Graham reportedly reserved his right to appeal the arbitrator’s decision Monday, the deadline for him to do so. That does not affect the long-term contract deadline and does not bar the Saints and Graham from hammering out a deal.

3. Graham could sit out the whole year, but the same aforementioned reservations apply. He would have no chance to produce on the field. He would make no money.

4. An unlikely — but possible — complication: Graham’s unsigned tag permits him to talk to other teams. It gives the Saints a chance to match any offer he would accept, but if the Saints didn’t do that within five days, they’d receive a first-round draft pick in 2015 and another in 2016 from Graham’s new team.

The Saints would struggle mightily to match any offer to Graham that would eat up lots of 2014 salary cap space. They were about $1.7 million under the salary limit Monday.

But teams are reluctant to part with first-round picks, especially early ones. Most teams anticipating they’d have late first-round picks didn’t have enough cap space to make an offer. And no player under a franchise tag has switched teams for two No. 1 picks since 2000 — which best illustrates how remote of a possibility this scenario is.