Vargas: All part of the process as Saints franchise Jimmy Graham

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham roars at Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso in October's game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham roars at Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso in October's game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

At 4:33 p.m. Friday, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham went on Twitter and sent out some unsurprising news: His team was going to slap the franchise tag on him to prevent him from hitting the open market when free agency begins March 11.

“Confirming it’s officially Franchisefriday ... TAG ... I guess I’m it,” he tweeted.

Few people, including Graham, should’ve been surprised. Ever since Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis spoke to reporters in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 21, he confirmed that’s precisely what New Orleans would do if it hadn’t hashed out a long-term deal with Graham to replace the expiring one the All-Pro player accepted from the team as a rookie in 2010.

Yet judging from the reactions on social media of many Saints fans who were confused over what the development meant, it’s worth issuing a reminder that the NFL’s most publicized offseason saga is playing out exactly as expected.

Signs still are that the saga will end where many involved say they hope it eventually will: with Graham in black and gold for 2014 and beyond.

In an email to The Advocate on Friday, Loomis confirmed Graham would be given the franchise tag. Reports on Saturday were that Graham was getting the nonexclusive tag, which is much more commonly used than the costlier exclusive kind.

A nonexclusive tag allows Graham to talk to other teams but gives the Saints a chance to match any offer he accepts. If they don’t match, they would receive two first-round draft picks from the signing team. And if he remains with the Saints, Graham would be given a one-year deal worth the average tag given to players at his position in the previous five years.

Regardless, there’s lots of work left to do.

Projections are that a franchise tag could be worth more than $6 million for a tight end and more than $11 million for a wide receiver. Graham spent most of 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints, leading the team in receiving yards (1,215) and the NFL in touchdown catches (16).

Given the massive difference in pay, many assume Graham will file a grievance through the players association to be classified as a receiver. In that case, the determination of how Graham should be paid would be in the hands of an arbitrator settled upon by the players association and the NFL Management Council.

But if history is any indication (it often is), Graham might never play under the tag.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees got a tag in 2012, and five years earlier defensive end Charles Grant had one. But Grant and Brees signed long-term deals before playing under their tags — the former in April of that year, the latter in July.

Salary cap-wise, the Saints headed into Friday with an estimated figure of $125 million. The NFL on Friday notified teams the 2014 cap would be $133 million, quite higher than initial estimates of $126 million.

Ultimately, that doesn’t give the Saints much flexibility. But they have more than they thought they did as they deal with Graham and their other free agents-to-be, some of whom they’ve approached about extending their tenures in New Orleans.

Recent reports have stated the Saints are willing to give Graham more than the $9 million per year New England tight end Rob Gronkowski makes. Gronkowski, for now, is the league’s best-paid tight end.

But Graham and the Saints reportedly are still several million dollars per season apart from a new contract, seeming to set up a fight in which the player’s camp will try to push as far above $10 million annually as possible.

Now’s an opportune time to remind everyone that both the Saints and Graham have repeatedly expressed the desire to hammer out a contract.

More than anything else, “I’m ... worried about developing and coming to terms on a long-term contract,” Loomis said in Mobile.

As for Graham, though he admitted a tag would be “real unfortunate,” he has said of Brees: “That’s my guy. He always will be.”

He also told our TV partners at WWL, “Not only do I love this city, but I love our fans. ... They love us through the thick and thin ... and I always want to be a part of something like that.”

Why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t the Saints want him to?

Graham blasted into 2013 by hauling in 10 touchdowns and amassing 746 receiving yards in the Saints’ first eight games as the team started 6-2. He surpassed the 100-yard threshold in five of those games.

Yes, his numbers dipped after he hurt a foot and an elbow, catching 469 yards and six TDs while topping the 100-yard mark once over the second half of the regular season. He caught a lone 8-yard pass in the NFC divisional-round loss to Seattle.

But that he powered through injuries without missing games and was still productive dispels doubts about his physicality, which gained popularity following the loss to Seattle. Remember, too, that Graham has essentially been playing football for only five years, joining the NFL after one college season at Miami.

He’ll achieve complete maturity under his next contract.

It’s plain to see why both sides want that to happen in New Orleans — and why it’s worth enduring the process for that to happen.

(Sheldon Mickles contributed reporting to this column, and this piece has been updated since it was originally published to mention reports that Graham was given the nonexclusive tag.)