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2018 NFL Free Agency

Saints 2018 Free Agency Target: Pros & Cons of TE Jimmy Graham Returning to NOLA

It was exactly almost 3 years ago that the New Orleans Saints did the unthinkable, and traded away one of their very best players while he was just entering into the "prime" of his career.

That player of course was now 5-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, the team's original 2010 Draft pick (University of Miami in the 4th Round) who was dealt to the Seattle Seahawks on the opening day of 2015 NFL Free Agency.

Now 3 years removed from that fateful day, could the likelihood of Graham coming back to New Orleans to play once again for the franchise that originally selected him and where he blossomed into an NFL "superstar", become a reality?

And perhaps more importantly: what are the "pros and cons" of a potential Graham return — and how could it possibly affect the team's chemistry?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

For those fans who may have missed it, one of the reasons WHY Graham was traded to the Seahawks in exchange for their 1st Round 2015 Draft pick and center Max Unger; was because he was 'allegedly' considered to be a spoiled player (or a "prima donna") that once he reached a certain level of stardom, wanted to be pampered or treated better than everyone else.

Now grant it: those stories were NEVER substantiated, but it was obvious that there was a lot more going on "behind the scenes" besides what had been widely reported. (ESPN Insider Chris Mortensen reported that after Graham had signed his new contract with the Saints in the summer of 2014, that he didn’t like to be hit or even “touched” during practice).

The original source of any friction or a "rift" between Graham and Saints management was over the terms of a new contract; in which Graham demanded that he paid the same money that WIDE RECEIVERS make in the NFL, instead of being paid as the tight end that he was (which would have been less).

As the situation grew acrimonious and Graham was threatening a potential hold-out for the 2015 season, the team simply decided to avoid making a bad situation worse, and pulled off the trade with the Seahawks.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

After he left New Orleans, Graham had some very uncomplimentary things to say about the Saints organization; which now 3 years later would seem to complicate a potential return in Free Agency in a month from now when 2018 NFL Free Agency officially gets underway on Wednesday, March 14th.

Or does it?

Despite the circumstances of Graham's departure along with the fact that he is now another 3 years older, he still remains as one of the very best tight ends in the entire NFL, and his 10 TD receptions led ALL NFL TE's in 2017.

At 31, his next NFL contract that he will eventually sign next month, could be his last.

With that in mind, here are the "pros and cons" of a potential signing of Graham by the Saints and bringing him back to NOLA.....

PROS:

5-time Pro Bowl selection (3 times New Orleans, 2 times Seattle)

Led all NFL TE's in Touchdown Receptions (10) during the 2017 season

Last 2 seasons in Seattle: Played in 43 games (started 39 of them); 265 targets, 170 catches, 2048 yards and 18 touchdowns

Still one of the League's premier players at his position

 

CONS:

Below-average blocking skills

Age 31 ("declining" player?)

Posted career lows in yards per reception (9.1) and yards per target (5.4) in 2017

Fewest receptions (57) and yards (520) in 2017 since his rookie season (when he had only 44 targets)

Led ALL NFL tight ends in drops with seven (one shy of league-leading Marqise Lee) and caught a career-low 59.3 percent of his targets

Maturity / personality / attitude concerns?

Injury-prone last 3 years

 

Most Saints fans will recall that Graham was a former college basketball player for the University of Miami Hurricanes hoops program, who came to the Saints in the 4th round of the 2010 draft and quickly developed into an offensive weapon for QB Drew Brees in head coach Sean Payton's offensive scheme, especially in the red zone where he could use his 6-foot-7, 265-pound basketball "power forward" frame to his advantage.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

In his 2nd year with the Saints in their NFL record-breaking 2011 regular season, Graham set a franchise record with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. He went on to catch 256 more passes for 3,086 yards and another 35 TD's from 2012 through 2014, before the team decided to move on from him and find another player capable of matching his production.

Unfortunately for the Saints, that hasn't happened since Graham left town.

Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson had a nice year for the Saints in the 2015 season, but was not re-signed by the team and he eventually left to sign with the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 NFL Free Agency.

The Saints then decided to sign former Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener to a 5-year, $36 million contract during that same 2016 Free Agency signing period, but in his 2 seasons so far in New Orleans has been a major disappointment.

Fleener's 2017 season ended 5 games earlier than expected due to a concussion that he suffered during a Week #13 loss to the Los Angeles Rams; and his production wasn’t really all that impressive even before he was lost for the year, as he only made 22 receptions for 295 yards. 

Fleener is set to count $8 million against the cap in the 2018 season, with a $6.3 million salary. There is almost no chance (as in ZERO percent) that Fleener sticks around at those numbers, and while a pay cut is possible, it is more likely the Saints cut him outright.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Doing so would save New Orleans $3.2 million against the salary cap, which could be used elsewhere. Could that be the same money that the Saints would use to sign Graham and bring him back to where his NFL career began?

Regardless of whatever happens with Fleener, one of the Saints' biggest areas of need right now for the 2018 off-season is a tight end that can make an impact as a receiver in the passing game — and no one player in the past several years with the possible exception of Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, has had the impact at the TE position as a receiver, than Graham has.

Graham is now a 5-time Pro Bowler, with his last 2 selections coming with Seattle in 2016 and then once again last season, despite his missing some time with an ankle injury. And while he didn't exactly set the world on fire with the Seahawks under coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson, he didn't really do anything to hurt himself, either.

Bottom line: Graham still has some considerable amount of "gas left in the tank" after 8 productive NFL seasons.

Photo courtesy of The Seattle Times

So what kind of money would it take for a potential Graham / Saints reunion in NOLA?

When it comes to Graham's market value as of this very moment, he'll likely get a contract which would pay him $6.7 million per year for the next three years. That would be a smaller deal than what they gave Fleener, but the Saints would likely see if he would sign a 2 or a 3-year deal because of his age (31 years old).

But even if the Saints can't sign Graham, they still need help at the position, especially with the uncertainty regarding Fleener and the lack of quality depth at the position (Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui), with regard to pass-catching capabilities.

Let's face it: the Saints WON'T re-unite with Graham for his pass-blocking credentials.

They would just want him to do what he once did before: catch plenty of passes and score a lot of TD's, especially in the red zone and near the goal line, that once made him the most feared players in the League just a few short years ago.

With regard to the alleged rumors about his "all-about-me" attitude during his last season with the Saints in 2014; and questions of how it hurt the team chemistry within the locker room, the thought in some NFL circles is that perhaps the passing of time has given Graham a different perspective, now that he is a bit older (and wiser?)

So any talk of a potential Graham return hurting the chemistry of this current group of relatively young players that just finished 11-5, won the 2017 NFC South Division Championship and just missed making the NFC Championship Game by 10 seconds and a poorly-timed missed tackle, maybe is or isn't all that plausible any more.

That would be for the future to determine.

And as far as Graham's current relationship with the team management (as in Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton) and how it affects negotiations, that depends on who you ask.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Advocate

There was rumored to be some remaining bitterness between the two sides that would prohibit such a reunion, but there have also been some suggestions that they have since agreed to put aside any differences which would allow his prodigal return in the Black and Gold, to become a very distinct possibility.

Until then, the team's front office brass still has an entire month left to consider the "pros and cons" — of a Graham / Saints reunion in NOLA....

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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