The Saints and Jimmy Graham have agreed to a new contract that will keep the tight end in New Orleans. The scoop comes from Graham himself, who tweeted, “It’s official I’m bleeding black and gold this morning! Thank you WhoDatNation for all the support.” Shortly thereafter, agent Jimmy Sexton confirmed to Andrew Brandt of ESPN (Twitter link) that a deal is in place and the Saints made an announcement of their own (Twitter link).
According to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (via Twitter), it’ll be a four-year, $40MM contract, with $21MM in guaranteed money. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk clarifies that only $13MM of that total (a $12MM signing bonus, plus a $1MM 2014 base salary) is fully guaranteed at the time of signing, but there’s virtually no chance the team will be cutting Graham loose before next year’s $8MM salary becomes guaranteed, since it would result in $9MM in dead money on the cap and allow the tight end to hit free agency.
Brandt adds (via Twitter) that the deal includes another $9MM in 2016 and $10MM in 2017, meaning the annual cap hits are $4MM, $11MM, $12MM, and $13MM, respectively. The $10MM average annual value on Graham’s new contract makes him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing the per-year average on deals signed by Rob Gronkowski ($9MM) and – previously – by Dallas Clark ($9.185MM).
The agreement between Graham and the Saints comes just ahead of the July 15 deadline for franchise players to work out multiyear extensions with their respective clubs. If the two sides hadn’t struck a deal by 3:00pm central time today, Graham would only have been able to play the 2014 season on a one-year contract, giving the Saints the opportunity to use its franchise tag on him again in 2015.
Graham, a former third-round pick, was franchised by the Saints several months ago and was the only player who received the tag and didn’t quickly accept the one-year tender or work out a longer-term deal. Before the 27-year-old agreed to re-sign with the Saints, he filed a grievance disputing his positional designation — the $7.035MM franchise tag for tight ends was significantly less than the $12.312MM he would have earned if he had instead been tagged as a receiver. Graham lined up split out from the offensive line on two-thirds of his snaps in 2013, so his camp felt he had a strong case to be franchised as a wideout rather than a tight end.
However, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled in favor of the Saints, determining that a number of factors contributed to Graham being viewed as a tight end. While the NFL’s CBA dictates that a franchise player’s position is the one “at which the franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior league year,” Burbank’s ruling hinged on the fact that Graham participates in tight end meetings, was drafted as a tight end, and lists himself as a tight end on his Twitter page, among other reasons. Burbank also determined that Graham was technically playing tight end when he was detached from but still close to the offensive line — specifically, when he was lined up within four yards of the o-line, which happened a majority of the time.
Graham’s camp filed an appeal challenging Burbank’s decision yesterday, but that was viewed as a procedural move, designed to increase leverage in negotiations and to ensure that Graham could attempt to maximize his 2014 earnings in the event that he and the Saints were unable to compromise on a multiyear extension. That appeal is expected to be dropped now that the two sides have seemingly agreed to a longer pact.
Graham has been the league’s most consistent and productive tight end over the last three years, averaging 90 receptions, 1,169 yards, and 12 touchdowns per season during that span. He figures to continue acting as Drew Brees‘ favorite offensive weapon for years to come after his contract negotiations closely followed the script that Brees and the Saints set two years ago — during the 2012 offseason, Brees was franchised by New Orleans and ultimately worked out a five-year contract with the club just before the July deadline.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.