New Orleans has been blessed with two players that are elite at their respective positions; they combine to create a weapon that rivals “Stafford-to-Megatron” as the most potent in the NFL. But in the salary cap era, it’s tough not to ask yourself who the more important player to the Saints is: Brees or Graham.
Brees is undoubtedly the best player in Saints history, and his arrival in New Orleans catalyzed the resurrection of the mediocre franchise. He’s the only quarterback to have had multiple 5,000-yards passing seasons – four consecutive ones, no less – and doesn’t look like he’s slowing down soon. He’s one of the best active quarterbacks (click here to find out where he ranks in our quarterback power rankings) and a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Meanwhile, Graham is arguably the best tight end currently active in the NFL. Before a foot injury slowed his production down midseason, he was racking up yards at a record-setting pace – he had almost 600 yards in the first five games alone! He’s essentially a wide receiver in the body of a tight end – a fearsome combination that creates mismatches on almost every play. Commentators across the NFL frequently gush over Sean Payton’s penchant for using Graham to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
But this debate isn’t about who’s better; it’s about who is more valuable. For that, we need to look to the future.
If you were to build a franchise today and select a quarterback to lead the franchise from a pool of every quarterback in the league, my bet is that Brees wouldn’t even be in the top five picked. The point I’m making is that he is aging (he just turned 35).
By contrast, Graham is 27 and entering the prime of his career. He would probably be the first tight end to be selected for the hypothetical start-up franchise that is snapping up the best building blocks at each position.
However, positions aren’t valued equally in the NFL. To say that an elite cornerback is as valuable to a team as an elite fullback is laughable.
Finding a franchise quarterback is not an easy task – just ask the Jaguars, Raiders, Vikings and a host of other teams. Even the Saints had to endure years of obscurity at the quarterback position (most recently through the 90’s). People like to point to Russell Wilson’s impressive start to his career after being drafted in the 3rd round, but no other franchise quarterback has been drafted lower than him in the last decade – that’s a ringing endorsement of the value of a franchise quarterback.
Meanwhile, tight ends like Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas and Ladarius Green were all drafted in the 4th rounds of recent drafts, with guys like Jordan Reed and Graham himself drafted in the third. While the value of tight ends is rising thanks to the recent exploits of guys like Graham and Gronkowski, it’s still far short of that of quarterbacks. Replacing a player like Graham would prove to be extremely difficult, but a lot more possible than replacing someone like Brees.
The major knock on Graham is his run-blocking; while he’s a fantastic weapon in the passing game (he saw the field on more passing snaps last year than any other skill position Saint save Brees himself), he’s a liability in the run game (featuring on less than half of all run plays last year – low for a tight end). Can you really compare an elite player who isn’t an every-down starter to one that is?
If I had to lock one – and only one – down for the upcoming season, it’d undoubtedly be Brees. It’s trickier when you take their salaries into account. Suppose I was Mickey Loomis (I prefer the mustached version) and had only $20m in cap space for the next year.
With Brees counting $18.4m and Graham likely to cost the Saints anywhere between $6.8m and $11.6m (the cap hits for being franchise-tagged as a tight end and a wide receiver respectively), tough decisions would have to be made. Would I sign Brees and a role player at another position, or would I sign Graham, a cornerback to start opposite Keenan Lewis, an established offensive tackle to shore up the line and potentially a cheap tight end to replace Graham with? It is a tough decision like this that would make or break a GM’s career.
Forced to make the choice, I would have to pick Brees – having a future Hall of Fame quarterback marshaling your offense is worth reducing the talent of his supporting cast. Who knows; maybe we’d pick up another Graham-like tight end in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft.
Thankfully, Loomis is great at his job – he’s allowed us to be in the position to keep them both. With Brees likely playing out the end of his career in the Big Easy, New Orleans will certainly rejoice if/when Graham signs a long-term deal with the Saints – the city will have two of the best players in its franchise’s history locked up for years to come.