Saints, Jimmy Graham at last agree to new deal

Associated Press file photo by GERALD HERBERT -- Saints tight end Jimmy Graham emerges from a tunnel during player introductions before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 22. The Saints will have dates and times for this year's opponents when the NFL releases its full schedule Wednesday night. Show caption
Associated Press file photo by GERALD HERBERT -- Saints tight end Jimmy Graham emerges from a tunnel during player introductions before a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 22. The Saints will have dates and times for this year's opponents when the NFL releases its full schedule Wednesday night.

Hours before deadline, Graham proclaims: ‘It’s official I’m bleeding black and gold’

At last.

The Saints are closer than ever to crossing out the final item on their 2014 offseason checklist after the team announced Tuesday morning it had agreed to terms on a new long-term deal with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.

Graham himself broke word of the agreement prior to that, writing on Twitter before 8 a.m., “It’s official I’m bleeding black and gold this morning! Thank you WhoDatNation for all the support.” That after he unsuccessfully clashed with New Orleans in an arbitration hearing during negotiations that dominated NFL headlines following February’s Super Bowl.

Terms of the deal weren’t officially disclosed. But ESPN reported that preliminary numbers suggest it’s indeed more lucrative than the six-season, $9 million-a-year contract with $13 million guaranteed that in 2012 made New England’s Rob Gronkowski the best-paid tight end in NFL history.

According to ESPN’s report, Graham’s deal should be four seasons and about $10 million a year, with $21 million of that guaranteed. The $10 million annually would put him tied for seventh among the NFL’s most handsomely-paid wide receivers, where Graham yearned to be, as negotiations with the Saints would plainly show.

For comparison’s sake, Graham’s first contract with the Saints paid him $3.3 million over four years.

Both the Saints and Graham cut it very close to a key deadline at 3 p.m. Tuesday. After that, all Graham would’ve been able to sign for 2014 was a one-season franchise tag worth more than $7 million, which in a formal proceeding he argued should’ve been worth some $5 million more.

But still, neither the duration nor the outcome of the Graham saga should come as a surprise.

First of all, on the duration: In 2012, the Saints waited until July 13 to sign quarterback Drew Brees to a $100 million contract that replaced the free-agent deal with which he joined New Orleans in 2006. They didn’t care that Brees — the best player in team history — had led the Saints to their sole Super Bowl victory three seasons earlier; and, in the previous campaign, he set an NFL record for passing yards in a single season.

Second of all, on the outcome: Graham would’ve been assuming a sizable risk playing next season under the tag, which prevented him from becoming an unrestricted free agent when the contract he was given as a rookie third-round draft pick in 2010 expired in March. Though he couldn’t have been fined for skipping training camp or preseason exhibitions if he didn’t sign the tag until shortly before the regular campaign got underway, Graham would’ve had to make himself available for all games and workouts thereafter to earn the full value of the franchise tender.

One doesn’t have to go far to find examples of players who suffered serious setbacks while laboring under a franchise tag. Early last season, Chicago defensive tackle Henry Melton tore the ACL in his left knee.

As for the Saints, an unlikely but possible complication lurked. Graham’s unsigned tag permitted him to talk to other teams but gives the Saints a chance to match any offer he’d want to accept. If the Saints didn’t match within five days, they would’ve received one first-round draft pick in 2015 and another in 2016 from the team signing Graham.

The Saints would’ve struggled mightily to match any offer to Graham that would eat up lots of their salary cap space for 2014. They were only about $1.7 million under the salary limit on Tuesday.

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, perhaps most telling, no player under a franchise tag has switched teams for two No. 1 picks since 2000.

Regardless, it wasn’t easy for the Saints to get to this point with Graham. That was largely because Graham filed a grievance through the players union challenging his designation as a tight end for the purposes of the tag.

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 touchdowns catches and was named Associated Press First Team All-Pro. So he contended that he should get a wide receiver franchise tag worth more than $12 million.

Presiding over a hearing of the grievance in June, NFL system arbitrator Stephen Burbank ultimately ruled that Graham was a tight end. Burbank arrived at the ruling 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 the team like tight ends normally are.

He reserved his right to appeal the decision, but that was made moot by the new contract.

Before settling things with Graham, the Saints had accomplished the vast majority of what they wanted to do this offseason. Most notably, to improve a defense that surrendered the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL in 2013 but also generated the fourth-fewest takeaways, they managed to acquire safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey in free agency.

Byrd’s 22 interceptions are the most among NFL safeties — and No. 2 among all players — since entering the league in 2009 as a second-round draft choice by Buffalo. Bailey, meanwhile, has an astounding 52 career regular-season interceptions in a career that began in 1999.

To keep an offense that last year gained the NFL’s fourth-most yards potent, the Saints added rookie receiver Brandin Cooks in the first-round of the draft in May. In his last year at Oregon State, Cooks won the Biletnikoff trophy given to the nation’s top receiver after catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.

New Orleans hopes that Cooks — who occasionally took handoffs and returned kicks in college — will produce in a fashion that’s comparable to Darren Sproles, the running back who led the Saints in all-purpose yardage from 2011 (when he set a league record in the category) to 2013 before being traded in March to Philadelphia.

But it’s undeniable Graham all along figured prominently into the Saints’ plans for the future.

His 41 touchdown receptions are fourth all-time and the most for a tight end in Saints record books. His 301 catches and 3,863 receiving yards are respectively No. 6 and No. 7 all-time for the Saints, and they’re each No. 1 among all tight ends who’ve suited up for the Black and Gold.

He holds single-season franchise records for catches (99 in 2011) and touchdowns (his 16 last year). He’s gone to two Pro Bowls and was a part of playoff runs in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

From 2011 to 2013, no NFL tight end equaled his 270 catches and 3,507 receiving yards, and no league player matched his 36 touchdowns grabs.

Graham unquestionably was the Saints’ last loose end this offseason. The good news for New Orleans is he’s not that any longer — and there’s still almost eight weeks to spare before the regular season kicks off.