Tight end Jimmy Graham is heading into a contract showdown with the New Orleans Saints, one that could potentially turn ugly. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Graham will file a grievance if the Saints give him the franchise tag as a tight end. The two sides have made no progress in contract negotiations.
Teams have until March 3 to apply the franchise tag on players. If New Orleans and Graham are unable to strike a long-term deal, that tag could end up being the nuclear option. The difference between the tight end and wide receiver designations is significant -- Over The Cap estimates that tagged wideouts will get $11.6 million in 2014, while the tight ends will earn $6.8 million.
Complicating matters is the Saints' salary cap crunch. They freed up some room by releasing Will Smith, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper, but they're only about $11 million below the cap number, so tagging Graham as a wide receiver will hurt their ability to find free agents and sign their rookie class.
This isn't the first time a tight end has tried to fight the franchise tag. Last offseason, Jared Cook wanted to be tagged as a wide receiver while with the Tennessee Titans. The Titans balked and let Cook hit the open market, where he eventually signed a five-year deal with the St. Louis Rams worth $35.11 million. Cook's first season in St. Louis was a disappointment, but he's nowhere near the talent level of Graham, who should command a much higher price.
At any rate, New Orleans is desperate to hold onto Graham, possibly the best pass-catching tight end in the league and a vital part of Sean Payton's offense. Graham had another stellar year in 2013, leading the league with 16 touchdown catches. If he does leave New Orleans, he could be the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, and deservedly so. The Saints need him if they want to get back to the Super Bowl -- Drew Brees isn't getting any younger -- but if they can't agree on a long-term deal, then look for a long battle over the franchise tag that could stretch out into training camp.