Vargas: It’s all business for Saints, Jimmy Graham

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints tight end Jimmy Graham celebrates a touchdown with quarterback Drew Brees in the Dec. 29 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Show caption
Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints tight end Jimmy Graham celebrates a touchdown with quarterback Drew Brees in the Dec. 29 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tom Benson and his brain trust will pay out the money, but they also won’t just throw the cash around, either. There’s a purpose and a plan, and those were on display with the deals struck with Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees.

If you’re a special New Orleans Saints player in your prime, owner Tom Benson will make sure you get paid what you’re due.

You will have to sweat it out. It doesn’t matter who you are — because what do you expect from a man who joined the business world full-time at age 21 and is still going at it 66 years later?

But if you’re worth it and can stomach the process, Benson’s brain trust will get you yours. There can be doubt about that, not after the Saints on Tuesday signed star Jimmy Graham to a four-year, $40 million contract with $21 million guaranteed that made him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history.

It was at a gathering of NFL owners in March that Benson essentially promised Graham would get a fair contract to replace the expired one he accepted as a rookie in 2010. But, Benson stated plainly to two reporters, prepare for negotiations to last right up until a mid-July deadline.

Why wouldn’t they? It’s nothing personal — just the way business is done in the front office commanded by Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis.

Who can forget two years earlier, when after playing out the contract he accepted to join the Saints in 2006, quarterback Drew Brees had to wait until July 13 to finalize an extension that kept him in New Orleans and paid him handsomely?

The fact that Brees had led the Saints to their sole Super Bowl victory three seasons earlier, had set an NFL record for passing yards in a single year in the previous campaign and had cemented himself as the franchise’s best player ever did nothing to shorten the quarterback’s wait.

Finally, Brees signed a five-year, $100 million contract that at the time gave him the highest annual salary in NFL history before going on to pass for the most yards (10,339) and second-most touchdowns (82) in the league over the last two seasons.

The Saints’ treatment of their future Hall of Fame quarterback didn’t dissuade agent Jimmy Sexton from diligently trying to speed up the pace at which New Orleans would do business with his client, Graham, who’s no Brees but whose 270 catches, 3,507 receiving yards and 36 touchdown grabs the past three years helped position him as the most productive tight end both in Saints history and the NFL today.

That effort began in earnest in the early spring with insinuations that Graham’s camp could formally challenge the one-season, $7 million franchise tag the Saints gave the tight end to prevent him from hitting free agency at the conclusion of his original contract. Graham had mostly lined up as a slot receiver in 2013 and could argue at a quasi-legal hearing that he deserved a wideout franchise tag worth $5 million more.

Success there would empower Graham to reasonably demand a comparable annual salary in negotiations for a new long-term contract, so maybe it was in the best interest of the Saints to hammer out a deal before they risked losing leverage.

No deal, said the Saints. So Graham’s camp opened the proceeding April 28 and got a June 17-18 hearing date.

Maybe the Saints would want to avoid the hassle of the hearing and work it out with Graham, who sought a deal that was a good bit more lucrative than the six-season, $9 million-a-year contract New England’s Rob Gronkowski took in 2012, unprecedented for a tight end? No deal, said the Saints, who sent Loomis and coach Sean Payton to testify against Graham at the hearing inside of a Metairie hotel.

Maybe the Saints would give Graham a deal after the hearing but before the arbitrator issued his ruling July 2, for that could still fall against them? Nope — no deal.

Then the arbitrator ruled Graham was a tight end due $7 million under the tag — not a receiver due $12 million. Suddenly, as Tuesday’s 3 p.m. deadline to work out a long-term deal with Graham in time for 2014 neared, the Saints preserved all the leverage with which they began.

Yet they also knew that didn’t diminish the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham’s true value. And they grasped that Tuesday marked another deadline: the one to fulfill Benson’s March promise of a fair deal for Graham, his two-time Pro Bowler and 2013 first-team All-Pro.

Benson and the Saints didn’t disappoint. Graham inked a deal that in 2014 reportedly nets him $13 million ($12 million on signing), or about $1 million more than what he could’ve gotten through his grievance. It’s set to pay him $1 million a year more than what Gronkowski earns annually and is reportedly structured so that the Saints save about $3 million on their 2014 salary cap figure.

Loomis in a statement Tuesday evening said, “We appreciate the hard work and professionalism that ... Graham and ... Sexton have exhibited during this process. We are all looking forward to Jimmy’s continued success on the field as we pursue a championship together.”

Graham earned the plaudits about his professionalism. He had maintained a tactful social-media silence throughout the taxing negotiations, only breaking it Tuesday morning to post on Twitter, “I’m bleeding black and gold!”

The elation was understandable, for he had also sweat black and gold — just how Benson’s crew likes it.