Report: Saints, Jimmy Graham start negotiations at ‘ground zero’

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 15-16 - FILE ** This Feb. 27, 2010, file photo shows Miami's Jimmy Graham running a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. Graham believes that overcoming a difficult upbringing gave him confidence to do what he did at Miami: play four years of basketball, one year of football, earn a degree and become a third-round draft choice of the defending Super Bowl champions.  (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 15-16 - FILE ** This Feb. 27, 2010, file photo shows Miami's Jimmy Graham running a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. Graham believes that overcoming a difficult upbringing gave him confidence to do what he did at Miami: play four years of basketball, one year of football, earn a degree and become a third-round draft choice of the defending Super Bowl champions. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

His NFL peers rank him as one of the league’s top 10 players.

But that’s not likely to make much difference as Jimmy Graham and the Saints enter last-ditch negotiations for a long-term contract before the July 15 deadline for franchised players to do so following Wednesday’s denial of Graham’s grievance that he be considered a tight end instead of a wide receiver.

NFL.com reporter Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday that Jimmy Sexton, Graham’s agent and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis are starting at “ground zero” in negotiations despite the Saints’ making several offers to Graham during last season when he earned All-Pro honors and established himself as one of the league’s elite players, thus earning him a spot on the NFL Network’s final countdown of the players-voted Top 100 Players of 2014. Saints quarterback Drew Brees also made the Top 10, the exact order of which will be revealed next week.

Loomis, responding via email, said Thursday he had no comment on either the ruling by arbitrator Stephen Burbank or if negotiations with Graham had actually begun.

Sexton did not respond to phone and email requests and Graham has not posted on any of his social media sites since before the ruling.

Most estimates are that the Saints and Graham will agree to a deal worth between $9-10 million, surpassing the six-year, $54 million deal New England tight end Rob Gronkowski signed in 2012 that included $18.1 million in guarantees. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis received $23 million in guarantees in his deal.

The expected deal would make Graham the highest-paid tight end in the league. Over the past three seasons his number of receptions (270), receiving yards (3,507) and touchdowns (36) are the most by any tight end.

Graham is not likely to accept anything less than $20 million in guarantees and the longer the deal the more cap room the Saints can create under the $7 million it has already allotted for him.

The team currently has only $1.7 million in cap space.

“I think you’re going to have an 11th-hour agreement,” said former agent Joel Curry, now a contributor to The National Football Post. “There are parallels to this case in what the Saints did with Drew Brees.

“They made Brees jump though hoops and file a franchise tag grievance. (Brees) gained some leverage by winning and Graham lost, but the ruling did provide a little bit of clarity and made both sides come a little closer to an agreement.”

Brees successfully claimed he was a second-time franchise player in 2012 before signing a five-year $100 million contact with the Saints.

Graham does have 10 days to appeal Burbank’s ruling, although any ruling would have to be accelerated beyond the normal period for resolution to beat the July 15 deadline. After that, Graham can only sign the tight end franchise offer or sit out the season.

Winning the appeal would mean Graham is entitled to $12 million in 2014 as a franchised wide receiver rather than the $7 million which goes to franchised tight ends.

A three-person panel — Georgetown University law professor James Oldham and former federal judges Richard Holwell and Fern Smith — hear all appeals akin to Graham’s.

If no deal is reached and Graham loses the appeal, a possible scenario is his sitting out training camp until the week before the season opener at Atlanta.

Waiting any longer appears remote. According to Curry, since the 2006 collective bargaining agreement implemented the 2006 mid-July deadline, no franchised player has missed any regular-season games.

Curry said he doubted there would be any hard feelings between Graham and Saints coach Sean Payton, although Payton’s testimony appears to have been decisive in Burbank’s ruling and Graham was present at the time.

“Sean may have to do a little internal fence mending,” Curry said. “That’s why you have an agent.

“Imagine if a player tried to do it himself and management had to tell him all of his shortcomings.

“That’s why the agent is there to filter what gets back to the client so there aren’t any feelings of ill will. Hearing Payton and the others being critical was probably a little bit shocking.”

Staff writer Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.