The franchise tag arguments are over. We don't have to hear about whether Jimmy Graham is a tight end or a wide receiver anymore. He's a weapon unlike any other in the NFL, and he'll be paid $40 million over the next four years for his services in New Orleans, according to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport.
Graham will be in Saints training camp on time when it opens next week, ending a drama that ate up too much wasted energy this offseason. There was little doubt that Graham would be in uniform well before games that mattered. So, let's break down the fallout:
What does it mean for the Saints?
New Orleans is locked and loaded as the NFC South favorite. Meanwhile, Carolina's offensive questions have knocked the Panthers down a peg. Atlanta and Tampa Bay have plenty of talent, but they won eight games combined last year. On balance, the Saints have been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL under coach Sean Payton. They have won at least 11 games in four of the last five years.
The Saints' defense has more promise and talent than it has since Payton arrived. Payton and his players won't have to answer daily camp questions about a Graham holdout. They can focus on re-tooling an offense that has a lot of new moving parts.
So how good will that offense be?
A lot depends on Graham's health. Before his foot injury last year, Graham looked like a legitimate MVP candidate. He was as dominant as any wide receiver, including Calvin Johnson. After the injury, Graham was much less effective. The same is true for the vaunted Saints offense.
New Orleans was held to 16 points or fewer in four of its last seven games. The Seattle Seahawks, Panthers and St. Louis Rams' defenses pushed the Saints around during road games. Payton's group finished 10th in scoring overall. It was strange to see New Orleans play so passively.
Injuries were a factor, but nagging injuries have often been a factor for Graham and Saints stalwart wide receiver Marques Colston. This is a year of transition for the team. Lance Moore, Darren Sproles and Devery Henderson are gone on offense. A gang of Super Bowl-winning defensive players were jettisoned. The Saints need second-year wide receiver Kenny Stills and rookie wideout Brandin Cooks to step up.
After quickly finding offensive nucleus pieces when he arrived, Payton perhaps stuck with his old group for too long. Now he needs to mix in new players like Cooks, Stills, running back Khiry Robinson and left tackle Terron Armstead.
This group has the potential to be a top-five offense, but there are more questions than usual. Payton knows he only has so many years during Drew Brees' prime, and the former doesn't want to waste them.
How does Graham's money stack up?
Graham was not paid like a top-five wide receiver, but he wasn't that far off. He has a good chance to see the money from all four years of his contract. His deal is very comparable to that of Brandon Marshall's in Chicago. It's not at the level of Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson or even Mike Wallace, but Graham pushed the ball forward for tight end salaries.
In the end, all of the franchise tag arguments were a waste of time. The Saints were smart to stand their ground. Considering Graham's overall value, we think it's a team-friendly deal. Graham got $20 to $21 million guaranteed. That's barely more than Everson Griffen got from the Vikings.
What does it mean for other tight ends?
This wasn't a market-changing deal. Graham figures to remain the highest-paid tight end in the league for a while. (Rob Gronkowski is signed through roughly 2017.) Jordan Cameron, John Carlson and Vernon Davis are all seeking new contracts. Davis won't be a free agent until 2016, so he lacks leverage. Both players shouldn't approach $10 million per season with their contracts. Cameron could wind up in a similar situation to Graham next year as the Cleveland Browns' franchise player.
If that happens, we'll probably write too many articles about Cameron's franchise tag number and his potential holdout. And then he'll sign well before the real games start. Players aren't about missing those game checks.