It was far from a surprise that the New Orleans Saints announced a new long-term deal for franchised tight end Jimmy Graham on Tuesday—beating the NFL-imposed 3 PM CT deadline for completing such a deal.
The four year/$40 million deal meets the expected $10 million/year number that was rumored ever since the Saints won Graham’s franchise tag appeal last month. As noted by the Times-Picayune’s Katherine Terrell, and others, Graham appealed the ruling on Monday.
Perhaps Graham believed this long-term deal was not going to get done prior to the 3 PM deadline. Or maybe his camp was only trying to set a future precedent for players in his position.
Either way, the two sides agreed early Tuesday morning, making it all meaningless. Graham and the Saints can now concentrate on what each does best—playing football. The Saints now have their whole team under contract and healthy.
As one of the most talented and deep rosters in the NFL, the Saints are expected to contend for the franchise’s second Super Bowl title in 2014. It’s something they could have done without Graham. With Graham, though, that goal becomes much more real.
As one of the most physically imposing players in the league—only Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and New England’s Rob Gronkowski compare to Graham—the Saints are once again afforded the luxury of holding one of the most impossible matchups in the league in their possession.
When Graham lines up on the same side of the formation as fellow 6’5” receiver Marques Colston, defenses have to find a way to take away two great leapers, and two guys who can easily win jump balls. In short, no NFL defense has two guys who can do that—if they even have one.
Adding in the diminutive, yet incredibly athletic and fast Brandin Cooks, will make the Saints’ offense the most dangerous in the entire NFL. Jump balls will be aplenty, but so will quick throws into space.
The Saints will be able to dictate defenses’ plans by layering the ball all over the field, starting vertically then coming back horizontally, or vice-versa if they so choose.
And the running game should be improved with a greater dose of power running from the monstrously powerful trio of Khiry Robinson, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas.
Based on talent and the genius of Sean Payton, the Saints offense ought never score fewer than 20 points in a single game in 2014.
But this deal isn’t just a benefit for the Saints’ chances in 2014. It is also a coupe for 2015 through 2017. If Graham lives up to his contract as the highest paid tight end ever, it means he will have become an adequate run-blocker, which will mean greater balance for the offense.
It will make them even harder to defend as they’ll be even more unpredictable than they’ve ever been. And Cooks might become the greatest playmaker this offense has ever seen.
Fans don’t like to think of this often, but one of Reggie Bush’s greatest contributions to the Saints offense when he was around was as a decoy (surely a high paid one, but one who was also highly effective).
Think of the New England game when Graham was effectively taken out of the game. Sure, the Saints’ offense was slowed a bit overall. But by putting New England’s best defender on Graham almost exclusively, the rest of the defense was susceptible to other offensive weapons.
As a result, rookie Kenny Stills had his breakout game—catching a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against weaker Patriot defenders.
Going forward, Stills, Nick Toon, Cooks and any other Saints skill player who emerges will benefit from defenses committing a healthy dose of their resources to “shut down” Graham.
It should also be noted that the deal does one other thing. It all but guarantees that the core skill players of Graham, Colston, Stills and Cooks are a key part of the offense for the next three years. That, of course, is the same amount of time that Drew Brees still has on his five-year/$100 million contract.
In other words, the Saints have a three-year window to regain their grip as the league’s best offense and capture another Super Bowl title (or two or three).
With the defense showing signs of coming around (and then some) last year, this goal and approach makes a ton of sense. Sean Payton has always been about going for the jugular. You could say he’s the NFL’s version of Steve Spurrier.
Sure there’s great competition in San Francisco and Seattle, where those respective organizations have effectively created college-like pipelines for talent—where some players are essentially redshirted and held onto until ready to burst onto the NFL scene.
The NFL is changing before our eyes—especially in terms of the way teams handle personnel. Still, the Saints—while taking a more traditional approach—are among the games’ most talented rosters.
They’re in position to compete for titles for at least the next three years. That’s why Graham’s deal is a big deal. It keeps the window open a bit longer.
This era will end some time in the future. No team is immune to falling back to the pack.
But with Graham, Brees and the defense, the Saints have positioned themselves to stay in the conversation at the same time that two other NFC teams are trying to run away from the pack.
Let the games, and thus the fun, begin.