Jimmy Graham’s support team got him through contract woes

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.VA. — Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham never unloaded in public about the frustrations he encountered this offseason negotiating the contract extension that will keep him in New Orleans for up to four years and $40 million; but he felt the urge.

He never stopped working out or maintaining his physical shape despite not getting the deal he wanted until hours before a July 15 deadline lapsed; but he certainly had the chance, spending his time in Miami and away from New Orleans as negotiations between his agent, Jimmy Sexton, and the Saints’ front office unfolded.

There’s a select few people who deserve a lot of the credit for those two realities. And on Friday, after completing his first training camp practice with the Saints at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, Graham thanked them all in front of dozens of television cameras and audio recorders: former New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a fellow alum of the University of Miami; his family; his manager; and Hurricanes strength and conditioning coach Andrew Swasey.

“Vilma, my manager, my family — all of them were telling me, ‘No. 1, be ready,’ ” said Graham, who was the Saints’ lone Associated Press first-team All-Pro selection in 2013 after topping New Orleans in receiving yards (1,215) and the NFL in touchdown grabs (16). ‘ “Because it will be a fast turnaround if something gets done.’ ”

Saints fans may soon want to follow Graham’s lead on the gratitude toward his inner circle. The five-year veteran took the supplications to stay in game shape to heart, posting the fastest time in the grueling, lung-burning, CrossFit-style conditioning test the Saints’ training camp participants submitted themselves to Thursday.

Then, in drills Friday, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham had no problems catching passes from quarterback Drew Brees against the first-string defense, serving notice that speculation over whether the tight end’s time away would negatively affect his on-field performance might have been overblown.

“You know, when I’m down there in Miami with Swasey and Vilma, that’s all we do is work,” said Graham, noting that he treated this offseason in the same manner he did when the NFL was locked out in 2011 and players couldn’t work out with their teams’ coaching staffs while a new league collective bargaining agreement was being hammered out. “I knew whenever my number was called I’d have to show up and prove myself.”

Brees vouched that the start Graham had in camp was a smooth one.

“He’s ready to roll,” said Brees, who threw half of his 22 touchdowns from inside the opponent’s 20 last season to Graham. “His mind is in the right place.

“From a timing standpoint? Yeah, we’ve got some work to do, some catching up to do. But I’m very confident that can come back very quickly with him.”

Yet ensuring Graham didn’t let his physique fall off was only part of what his supporters achieved before the consummation of his contract extension. Their other focus was providing a sounding board to Graham, who admitted he grew upset at some of the opinions and media coverage generated by the negotiations.

Perhaps the tensest point related to a franchise tag that the Saints gave Graham to prevent him from hitting unrestricted free agency when the playing deal he accepted from New Orleans as a rookie in 2010 expired. The tag classified Graham as a tight end.

But Graham countered the Saints utilized him more like a wide receiver, and he deserved $5 million more under the tag for 2014 if he ended up signing that instead of an extension. So he filed a grievance through the players union for a hearing.

The arbitrator presiding over the hearing ruled against Graham after Saints coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis testified against the player. Both sides have since said there’s no ill sentiments over the hearing, but Graham grew upset with the way media covered that as well as other aspects of the negotiation.

“What was unfortunate was all the false information that’s out there and just all the stuff that’s being reported that’s not true and not saying anything about it, especially when you know what’s going on,” Graham said.

Graham, though, didn’t go off on Twitter or in any interviews about the contract talks or the words dissecting them. So Graham vented to his workout buddy, Vilma, who spent six years with the Saints, helped them win Super Bowl XLIV at the end of the 2009 campaign and was released in February.

Vilma, who suffered from recurring knee problems toward the conclusion of his tenure in New Orleans, “analyzed (everything) and told me what was best,” Graham remarked.

And what was ultimately best for Graham was to return to the franchise with which he’s been to the playoffs in three of his four seasons there so far.

Graham added, “Jonathan Vilma dedicated his summer to me. And he worked out every day, grinded with me every day and he listened to every complaint and every word and everything I said.

“He was truly amazing this offseason — he really was.”