The franchise tag battle between the New Orleans Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham could see some more drama in the coming weeks. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the Saints put the non-exclusive tag on Graham, leaving him open to negotiate with other teams.
The difference between a non-exclusive and exclusive tag is small but important. Under the non-exclusive tag, other teams have the right to negotiate with Graham for a long-term deal. If they make an offer sheet, the Saints have the right to match that offer. However, if the Saints decline to match, the offering team must give up two-first round picks as compensation. None of this would be possible if Graham had the exclusive tag.
Two first-round picks is a steep price to pay for a tight end, even one with Graham's talent, so it's unlikely that any team even bothers to try plucking him away. He's going to play for New Orleans in 2014 unless some team gets a crazy idea, but the fight is far from over.
Under the franchise tag, Graham is penciled in to make $7.03 million on a one-year deal, but he wants to be considered a wide receiver and is expected to appeal that designation. That would bump up his salary to $12.31 million. Even with the salary cap increase, that's a steep price for the Saints, who have just $1.5 million of cap space according to Over The Cap. If Graham gets tagged as a wideout, they would be forced to make even more roster cuts and would be hindered in free agency, in addition to needing to sign the upcoming rookie class.
This could all be avoided if the Saints and Graham can reach a long-term deal, but the two sides never got close in negotiations before assigning the tag. Graham led the league with 16 touchdowns and is one of the best tight ends in the league. He deserves the big paycheck, but do the Saints have enough to give him one? This story could very well drag out into training camp.