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Saints, Graham almost certainly headed for franchise-tag fight


Earlier this week, Saints G.M. Mickey Loomis said that the team will apply the tight end version of the franchise tag to Jimmy Graham, if a long-term deal isn’t worked out before then.

In other words, the Saints will be applying the tight end version of the franchise tag to Jimmy Graham.

If the Saints follow the precedent established when dealing with quarterback Drew Brees two years ago, the Saints will wait until the last possible moment to sign Graham to a new deal. And if the Saints have to lose a grievance along the way, so be it.

With Brees, the Saints indeed lost a grievance, over the question of whether he’d be entitled to a 20-percent raise or a 44-percent raise in 2013, under the franchise tag. Ultimately, they signed Brees on the eve of the July deadline for signing a franchise-tagged player to a long-term deal.

With Graham, it means that a long-term deal to the player’s liking likely won’t be offered by the deadline for applying the franchise tag, that the Saints will apply the tight end version of the tag, and that Graham will then file a grievance arguing that he actually was a receiver in 2013.

The key language of the CBA seems to support Graham. Under Article 9, Section 2 of the CBA, “[T]he tender will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Graham lined up for 67 percent of 879 regular-season and postseason snaps as something other than a tight end, with the most snaps coming lined up in the slot.

In response, the Saints may argue that the modern tight end position entails moving around to other spots, as other tight ends paid like tight ends do.

Other squabbles regarding the franchise tag has been settled while pending, including a tight end/receiver disagreement between the Packers and Jermichael Finley and a defensive end/linebacker fight between the Ravens and Terrell Suggs. The question is whether the Saints will blink and compromise -- or whether they’ll push the tight end/receiver question to the limit.

On one hand, it’d be good if they let the matter be resolved via arbitration. The issue isn’t going away, with more and more teams using more and more tight ends as receivers. On the other hand, the Saints could end up costing themselves a lot of money on a long-term deal if the starting point via the tag is $4.5 million higher for 2014.

Regardless, it would be out of character for the Saints to sign Graham to a long-term deal at any point before they absolutely have to.

If the use the non-exclusive version of the tag, that could happen quickly, if a team like the Falcons (which needs a successor to Tony Gonzalez) or the 49ers (which is drafting low this year and likely will be next year) or the Ravens (ditto) decides to pony up a pair of first-round picks for a chance to pilfer Graham from the Saints.