As expected, the Saints and Jimmy Graham found common ground on a long-term contract on the eve of the deadline for franchise tag players to do so (something someone said about deadlines spurring actions?). As noted in this space, the debate over which franchise tag was applicable was always a secondary matter: The real issue was always about Graham’s long-term, not one-year, earnings.
Graham’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, and Saints negotiator Mickey Loomis are used to deadline deals. In my years with the Packers, I negotiated several deadline deals with Sexton, including one for tackle Chad Clifton minutes before he was to become a free agent. And Loomis went through the same drill two years ago with Drew Brees, changing his status from franchise-tagged to signed long term after months of inactivity (and a franchise tag dispute).
Thus, we have a deal. Here are the details, including a signing bonus of $12 million (payable in full by September 2014):
|Year||Salary||Workout Bonus||Roster Bonus|
|2017||$7.9 million||$100,000||$2 million|
While the total contract is $40 million over four years, the “true guarantee” is the $13 million paid this year. Next year’s $8 million salary is guaranteed for injury only at this time, converting to a full guarantee three days following the Super Bowl. Thus, in the unlikely event the Saints move on from Graham after one year, they would have paid him $13 million—more than the wide receiver franchise tag—and would accelerate a $9 million cap hit into the 2014, not the 2015, cap (his release would be before the 2015 league year).
Despite the high short-term wages of the tag, players all prefer the security of a longer deal. They want to “get married” rather than “date” the team for a year before potentially doing so again. Thus, Graham was not going to turn down $21 million guaranteed to take one-year earnings of $7 million.
With the albatross of the franchise tag and the arbitrator decision to hold to a tight end classification hanging over this negotiation (the appeal is now moot), this contract came out about where expected. The average is strong—$10 million per year—but less meaningful than the $21 million guaranteed. As I often point out, NFL guarantees are nothing like NBA or MLB guarantees. After two years, the Saints have all the leverage with this contract, with the only salvation for Graham being an early-decision roster bonus in 2016.
I do applaud Graham and Sexton, however, for securing a four-year term on the deal. With so few chances to cash in for NFL players, preserving another bite at the free agency apple is so important. Graham will only be 31 if this deal goes through expiration, and if the Saints want to tag him then, he will be coming off a $13 million cap number. Compared to longer deals that take a player off the market for the rest of their careers—see Rob Gronkowski’s eight-year deal—Graham should be able to use the leverage of a shorter deal to his advantage.
Jimmy Graham did not break the bank, but he was never going to with the continuing leverage of the franchise tag. No one is shedding a tear for a $21 million guarantee and $10 million average, but imagine Graham’s numbers as a true free agent. Dare to dream…