Loomis insists Graham should be paid as tight end

MOBILE, Ala. — With the Saints prepared to use the franchise tag on Jimmy Graham if needed, a debate brews about whether he should be considered a tight end or a wide receiver owed millions of dollars more.

But in Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis’ eyes, that discussion should be a short one.

Graham was drafted in 2010 as a tight end; he was selected for the second Pro Bowl of his career this year as a tight end; therefore, he’s a tight end, Loomis said Tuesday morning during the Senior Bowl’s North team practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

“Isn’t that what we drafted him as?” Loomis replied when asked whether the Saints viewed Graham as a tight end despite the fact that the player spends more than half the time he’s on the gridiron lined up at wide receiver. “Isn’t that what he made the Pro Bowl as? That’s what we see him as: a tight end.”

Loomis added that tight ends figure prominently in the aerial attacks of today’s NFL offenses.

“Look, the tight end has always been part of the passing game,” Loomis said. “He’s part of the running game. So he’s part of both — so are receivers, so are running backs.”

Graham is reaching the end of the contract he accepted when he was a rookie, and he is due to become a free agent March 11 if the Saints don’t reach a new multiyear agreement with him or slap the franchise tag on him.

Many believe Graham deserves to be the highest-paid tight end in NFL history and that he’s worthy of $10 million a year. He led the NFL in the regular season with 16 touchdown catches and the Saints with 1,215 yards receiving.

He produced well even though he played through a foot injury for more than half of the season, in which the Saints won 12 games and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs. When defenses schemed to limit him, that opened up opportunities for teammates.

Loomis on Tuesday confirmed what’s virtually been a foregone conclusion: The Saints will hand the franchise tag to Graham if they can’t sign another deal with him. That would keep Graham with the Saints through the 2014 season.

However, it’s expected that Graham’s representatives would argue that the All-Pro player should be a wide receiver and not a tight end for the purposes of the franchise tag, given his numbers and how the Saints utilize him.

At least one projection estimates the 2014 franchise tag for a tight end will be $6.7 million; for a wide receiver it’s $11.6 million.

Loomis said he’s “not really worried about it.I’m more worried about developing and coming to terms on a long-term contract,” he said.

The Saints will be seeking out that contract and deciding what to do with 14 other players about to become unrestricted free agents while trying to get under a salary cap that they’re reportedly $12 million or more over. While it seems daunting, Loomis said that’s not the case.

“We’ve got smart people in our building,” Loomis said, specifically mentioning Director of Football Administration Khai Harley. “We’ll get a lot of input from the rest of our staff. So we’ll manage it.”

Loomis touched upon a variety of other topics in his first meeting with Saints beat writers since the season ended, a session that lasted about 30 minutes. Among them:

He described how unpleasant it is when the organization must release players who have contributed to the successes of the Payton regime to get under the salary cap. “The hardest part of (the job), anytime, is parting ways with players that have meant a lot to you,” he said.

Loomis reiterated what most members of the Saints have said about their season: It wasn’t a success because New Orleans didn’t capture a league championship, yet it was successful. It marked the fourth time the team has been to the playoffs since the 2009 season, when it won Super Bowl XLIV. “A lot of real good things ... to feel good about, and yet it wasn’t a great year because we’re not in the Super Bowl,” he said. “And that’s where we’re at as a program. We expect and want ... to play in that game, and we want to win it.”

The Saints GM was confident New Orleans’ defense would improve under coordinator Rob Ryan, hired after the unit surrendered the most yards in NFL history in 2012.

What Loomis wasn’t prepared for was the success they had overcoming injuries to orchestrate a turnaround that was unprecedented since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The Saints placed a staggering eight key defensive players on season-ending injured reserve, but they allowed the fourth-fewest yards and points.

Loomis insisted it’s flattering when one of Payton’s assistants is hired away. The latest instance of that was Tuesday, when Detroit said it planned to give its offensive coordinator post to New Orleans’ fifth-year quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi. “It’s a natural course of business when you’ve been successful with a head coach the caliber of Sean Payton,” Loomis said. “Obviously, teams want a piece of that.”

Aside from depleting the ranks, the accumulation of injuries had another adverse effect on the Saints: It ate up extra cap space, of which there was already too little, Loomis said. “When you have injuries, what happens is you’re adding compensation (to the players), you’re adding to your salary cap, so that’s what makes it (more) difficult.”