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Despite TE/WR ruling, ground still set for new Jimmy Graham contract

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

Heading into the holiday weekend, the Saints find themselves at odds with a player in terms of his worth, re-evaluating how to lock down a critical component to their offense for the long haul.

If the Jimmy Graham negotiations sound familiar, they should. This exact same thing happened two years ago with Drew Brees.

Nearly to the day, even. On July 3, 2012, an arbitrator ruled on Brees franchise-tag status, deciding New Orleans had just one more opportunity to tag Brees (the Chargers hit him in 2005 after his rookie deal was up).

10 days later, on the eve of the deadline to negotiate a new deal with players who were given the franchise tag, New Orleans and Brees hammered out a five-year, $100 million deal.

Despite a different arbitration result -- the Saints won out over Graham this time around -- the offseason script should still produce a similar ending. So what would a deal look like?

The key is both sides now know where to start negotiating.

Jimmy Graham is a tight end. His Twitter account and the legal system tell us so. He'll be a tight end next year too, when the Saints would have the option of franchising him a second time at 120 percent of this year's tag cost.

Therefore $15,477,000 is the baseline for guaranteed money owed to Graham when the Saints are talking a new deal. (A particularly substantial difference from the $27,086,400 Graham would be "owed" under a pair of wide receiver franchise tags.)

If you're talking new deal with Graham you've got to assume he's going to be paid as the top tight end in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski's currently the highest-paid tight end, at $9 million a year. Gronk's deal is missing substantial guaranteed money, however.

So why not bump up Graham's contract to $20 million guaranteed over a the course of a five-year deal and give him $45.5 million over the life of the contract?

It would give Graham the highest APY of any tight end ($9.1 million), the highest guaranteed (by far, $20 million) of any tight end in the NFL and also the highest guarantee per year ($4 million) of any tight end in the NFL.

For the Saints, it's not a really substantial reach: they're on the hook for more than $15 million if they want Graham around for two more years anyway. It keeps them from hitting the double-digit cost per year while keeping Brees top weapon around for as long as the quarterback can play (and through Graham's prime plus a year or so).

Additionally, it pays Graham, basically, like a top-10 wide receiver. He's one of the top 15 players in the game, if you're willing to believe Pete Prisco's rankings ... or Pat Kirwan's, where he's a top-10 player overall.

Per OverTheCap.com, Graham's (hypothetical) $9.1 million a year would rank ninth overall for wide receivers, just behind Andre Johnson and just ahead of Greg Jennings and Victor Cruz.

Factor in the large guaranteed sum for his services and it's hard to imagine Graham turning down such a deal, even if it doesn't hit the $12 million per year a franchise-tagged wideout would get.

Get Graham there and you're plugging him in, contractually-speaking, as a top-10 paid wide receiver in the NFL per OverTheCap.com, somewhere in the range of Greg Jennings, Andre Johnson and Victor Cruz.

There are concerns. The two sides are reportedly at "ground zero" with negotiations. Graham and the Saints don't have long to negotiate -- July 13 is the deadline to reach a new deal with a player who was given the franchise tag.

But history and a logical middle ground for contract negotiations make it a good bet Graham ends up inking a deal before things can get ugly.

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