The buzz around the Jimmy Graham franchise tag saga muffled due to his upcoming grievance hearing against the New Orleans Saints. An arbitrator will determine if Graham should be compensated like a tight end—his listed position—or a wide receiver, June 17-18.
There is roughly $5 million at stake based on the decision: $7.1 million if the Saints win or $12.1 million if Graham prevails.
Graham, who led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns, wants to be paid like a receiver via the franchise tag now and a long-term deal later. The All-Pro only lined up at TE for 33 percent of New Orleans’ snaps in ’13, starting the rest split wide or in the slot.
Why would the Saints line him up in a traditional tight end set when he ranks a pedestrian 39th in pass blocking and 41st in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
New Orleans would probably agree with Graham’s self assessment if it didn’t come with a cap-busting price tag. The Saints already rank 31st with only $1.6 million left under the cap. There isn’t an extra five mil under the couch cushions.
If the grievance hearing falls in Graham’s favor the Saints will face roster decisions and contract renegotiations. But even if Graham loses, his franchise tag is non-exclusive, meaning any team can tender an offer sheet. The Saints meager cap space leaves them vulnerable to a serious offer.
A team hasn’t jumped at a non-exclusive franchise tagged player since Dallas gave up two first-rounders to sign Joey Galloway away from Seattle in 2000. Sacrificing two consecutive first-rounders is costly, but there are five scenarios that might be too tempting to pass up.
Note: the teams considered for the list must have at least enough scratch to guarantee $25 million over the next two seasons; a number New Orleans would struggle to match.
GM on the Hot Seat
The Houston Texans Rick Smith survived last season’s purge, but Andre Johnson’s gripes don’t bode well for 2014. Why not bet the farm that Graham and Johnson can lift the mediocre prospects of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tom Savage and/or Case Keenum if you’re going to canned anyway?
Somehow the Oakland Raiders Reggie McKenzie received a heap of back slaps for what should be deemed a disappointing free agent class considering his massive $60 million bankroll. Slipping Graham in the back door will forgive any blemishes.
The Cleveland Browns Ray Farmer is already on the hot seat entering his rookie campaign as Browns GM. Just ask Michael Lombardi.
Money to burn
The Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles all have at least $20 million in cap space according to OverTheCap.com.
Attractive fit for both parties
Teams have been trying to match a pair of potent pass-receiving tight ends ever since the Patriots torched the middle with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in ’11.
The Green Bay Packers could arm Aaron Rodgers with Graham and Jermichael Finley—if Finley gains medical clearance and re-signs with the Packers.
Philadelphia could augment Nick Foles’ passing attack sticking Graham opposite Brent Celek/Zach Ertz.
The Indianapolis Colts could increase Andrew Luck’s arsenal adding Graham to the TE rotation of Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
Draft picks to burn
Cleveland is the lone qualifier in this category thanks to their first-round swap with Buffalo in May. The Browns will really only be out one first round pick in ’16, considering they have on to spare in ’15.
A play for Graham is even more tempting considering the pick they keep in ’15 is from a Bills team that only finished over .500 once in this century. It’s reasonable to expect the Bills pick to land somewhere in the top half of the first round.
All Cleveland fans need now is Graham’s agent to dress up like a homeless dude and convince Jimmy Haslam to make the move for his player. The combination of Graham and Jordan Cameron would be a formidable security blanket for Brian Hoyer/Johnny Manziel.
A need at tight end
Graham would be an improvement to any lineup as the preeminent tight end in the league—sorry, Gronk—but some teams need a viable TE1 option more than others.
Jacksonville could use a better option than Marcedes Lewis, who finished 34th in pass receiving among tight ends, according to PFF.
Plus, the Jaguars already tendered an offer sheet to a franchised player this offseason when they tried to snag Alex Mack away from the Browns. Cleveland matched and kept the two-time Pro Bowl center, but the move indicates Jacksonville’s willingness to part with draft picks via free agency.
The Tennessee Titans replaced the underwhelming Jared Cook—ranked 35th for the St Louis Rams in ’13, per PFF—with an even more yawn-inducing performance from Delanie Walker: his 60 receptions for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns ranked 56th out of 64, according to PFF.
Green Bay will be forced to go with Andrew Quarless—ranked 41st, per PFF—or Brandon Bostick if Finley does not return from his neck injury and/or decides to sign with another team.
The odds are Graham isn’t going anywhere, because the stakes are high and Drew Brees loves him. But if there’s a front office willing to steal a franchise player for the first time in 13 years, Graham is ripe for the picking.