Players supporting Jimmy Graham, but focused on their jobs

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham pulls in a pass between Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs Keith Tandy, left, and Dashon Goldson. Show caption
Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham pulls in a pass between Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs Keith Tandy, left, and Dashon Goldson.

Saints keep working as impasse between TE, management continues

“We support (Graham) as a teammate and look forward to when he comes back.” BEN WATSON, Saints tight end

Nine voluntary offseason practices and a three-day minicamp were history when Saints tight end Benjamin Watson was asked for his thoughts on teammate Jimmy Graham, who missed all of the aforementioned work because of a contract dispute.

Watson’s response — concise and confident — mirrored what other members of the Saints said they felt Thursday, the last day of the team’s 2014 offseason program and the beginning of a break before reporting to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for training camp on July 24.

“We support (Graham) as a teammate and look forward to when he comes back,” said Watson, an 11-year NFL veteran. “(Nobody) in the locker room is upset with him. We just hope that it works out good for him and that he’s able to get whatever he (hopes to) accomplish, and we’ll be here when he gets back and be ready to win (a) championship.”

And so the Saints again expressed their faith that a process, which began before their offseason workouts; persisted for their entire duration; and was still playing out would ultimately culminate with Graham returning to the organization for seasons to come.

To bar the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham from hitting unrestricted free agency when his contract lapsed in March, the Saints presented him with a one-year franchise tag that is worth more than $7 million and classifies him as a tight end.

But Graham lined up as a receiver on more than two of every three plays in 2013, when he topped New Orleans with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown grabs and was the lone Saint to be chosen Associated Press First Team All-Pro. So he filed a grievance in May through the league’s players union arguing he should get a wideout franchise tag worth more than $12 million.

The collective bargaining agreement the NFL adopted in 2011 states the kind of tag Graham was given should pay out the average of the five largest salaries from the previous year given to players at the position at which the player in question participated in the most snaps during the prior season.

League system arbitrator Stephen Burbank heard the case for and against Graham during a hearing at a hotel in Metairie that unfolded Tuesday and Wednesday. A ruling could come within the week.

If Graham triumphs in his grievance, the $12 million would count against the Saints’ 2014 salary cap. The Saints were about $1.63 million under that limit Thursday afternoon, counting Graham’s tight-end tag.

The whole clash would end the moment the Saints and Graham work out a long-term deal to replace the expired contract he accepted from New Orleans as a rookie in 2010. Any ruling that might come on Graham’s playing position should give significant leverage to the winning side in contract negotiations, though an appeal is allowed.

As the Saints and Graham await a resolution on the matter, players are left trying to support both sides.

“We’re looking forward to having everybody in camp — we don’t want anyone left behind,” said left guard Ben Grubbs, who made the Pro Bowl after a 2013 season that saw the Saints win 12 of 18 games and advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. “But we know it’s a business, and we know there’s certain things that an individual has to do to make sure that he puts himself in the best position.

“Jimmy is doing the best for him. The team is doing the best for the team. ... I think everything will work out fine.”

Grubbs added the Graham saga didn’t detract from an offseason program during which the offense operated well in noncontact drills against a defense that gave up the fourth-fewest yards and points in 2013 and had essentially retained its depth.

“Every day we came to work, no matter who (was) here or ... not here,” Grubbs said. “Our job is to come in, to focus and do the best we can do. ... I think it was a successful offseason.”

One of the Saints defensive leaders, linebacker Curtis Lofton said Graham’s absence didn’t make it easier to battle an offense masterminded by coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, who helped bring the franchise its only Super Bowl title a little more than four years ago.

“(They) have a future Hall of Fame quarterback. ... They got Sean Payton. Really, they didn’t skip a beat,” Lofton remarked of the offense.

Nonetheless, Lofton said, he’s not worried about the Saints and Graham striking a long-term deal before a July 15 deadline.

“We love Jimmy. We can’t wait to get him back,” he said. “When that day is done, Jimmy will come in, and everyone will go back to work.”