You can call Jimmy Graham a number of things: pass catcher, wide receiver, playmaker, Pro Bowler, offensive skill player, former basketball player, model citizen and New Orleans Saint.
But as of Tuesday morning, that list must now include: the NFL’s highest-paid tight end (annually).
The Saints inked Graham to a groundbreaking new 4-year, $40 million contract, narrowly escaping the league’s 4 p.m. ET deadline for a long-term deal.
"We are very excited to have this contract done," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "We appreciate the hard work and professionalism that Jimmy Graham and his agent Jimmy 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."
In the end, the franchise tag proved nothing more than a placeholder and Graham agreed to a deal that makes sense for both sides. Furthermore, it gives the Saints additional cap space while paying him $13 million this season and $8 million in the next, according to multiple sources familiar with the structure.
Graham was hankering for a deal on par with league’s top wide receivers, citing his production over the past three years, which included a league-leading 36 touchdowns.
The deal pays Graham more than four times what he earned over his first four years in the league. His annual salary eclipses New England's Rob Gronkowski's $9 million average.
Graham now clearly has the long-term security he so desperately wanted. No more franchise tag grievance. The appeal filed on Monday is irrelevant and the franchise tag designation issue is now moot.
Graham, who will be 31 when his new deal expires, announced it via Twitter Tuesday morning:
It's official I'm bleeding black and gold this morning! Thank you WhoDatNation for all the support.— Jimmy Graham (@TheJimmyGraham) July 15, 2014
Graham, usually very active on social media, demonstrated remarkable maturity throughout the grievance process that began in May when the NFLPA took action against the NFL Management Council on his behalf. At issue, the $5 million difference between the franchise tag amount for tight ends and wide receivers. Graham's camp sought to have him designated a wide receiver, citing figures showing he lined up out wide on 67 percent of the snaps last season.
However, arbitrator Stephen Burbank, after hearing from coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, among others at the June 17-18 hearing in New Orleans, eventually sided with the league.
Still, long-term agreements with players who have been tagged by their teams are anything but the norm in the NFL. Over the past two years, of the 12 players who have been tagged, with only three -- Graham, Denver left tackle Ryan Clady and Jets kicker Nick Folk -- got long-term contracts ahead of the deadline.
The Saints personify the "deadlines spur action" mantra in the NFL. In 2012, the club inked quarterback Drew Brees to a five-year, $100 million contract after a protracted negotiation and a similar grievance process -- though Brees won his franchise tag claim.
Graham has been one of the league's most productive players since being drafted in 2010. A former basketball player at Miami, Graham played just one year of college football before the Saints gambled on him in the third round.
Graham, 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, demonstrated his significant athleticism and potential during his rookie season in which he had 31 receptions for 356 yards and five touchdowns. Over the last three seasons Payton made Graham an integral part of the Saints passing game. Consequently, Graham became Brees' favorite target and one of the game's most dangerous weapons, tallying 270 receptions for 3,507 yards and a league-best 36 touchdowns.
While the principals involved in the negotiation remained relatively quiet Tuesday outside of a few social media posts, Graham's teammates were quick to express their happiness with the outcome.
Woke up to some Great news With Us Signing The Best TE IN DA GAME @TheJimmyGraham Congrats‼️ Lets Get dis Ring— SACKMAN (@JuniorG93) July 15, 2014
@TheJimmyGraham Glad to have you back Bruddah!— akiem hicks (@The_Dream99) July 15, 2014
For the league's 32 teams and its growing number of hybrid players, the ruling will certainly affect their future contract negotiations.
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis has skipped offseason workouts with the hopes of getting a new contract. He says he's outplayed the five-year, $37 million ($23 million guaranteed) deal he signed in 2010.
Elsewhere, Denver tight end Julius Thomas, who's in the final year of his rookie contract, had said he would be monitoring the situation, and, following today's announcement, sent congratulations to Graham via Twitter.
Throwing a shoutout to Jimmy Graham. Congrats! Glad both sides could come together and agree on a deal— Julius Thomas (@Julius_Thomas) July 15, 2014
Both, as well as Cleveland's Jordan Cameron, are among the league's growing number of tight ends who have helped to evolve the position into the integral part of the passing game it is today, and will benefit from Graham's new deal.
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