WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The New Orleans Saints and their two-time Pro Bowl tight end, Jimmy Graham, wasted no time putting their occasionally adversarial offseason behind them.
Graham and the team completed a four-year, $40 million contract extension last month, but only after being at odds earlier in the offseason about whether Graham deserved to be paid like a wide receiver.
“So the deal gets done,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said here Wednesday at the team’s training camp at the Greenbrier resort. “And the first time I saw him, I said, ‘Hey, are we punching it out or are we hugging it out?’ He said, ‘Oh, we’re hugging it out.’ So I think that tells you what you need to know.”
Graham filed a grievance after the Saints used their franchise player tag on him to, in effect, keep him off the free agent market. The Saints tagged Graham at the prescribed salary level of $7.035 million for a tight end. Graham and his representatives argued that he was used more like a wide receiver and should be paid like one; this year’s franchise player tag at wide receiver was worth $12.312 million. An arbitrator ruled in the team’s favor. Graham appealed, but his long-term contract was completed before that was resolved.
Loomis said Graham was properly exercising his rights under the collective bargaining agreement and the team didn’t hold that against him.
“He’s been awesome,” Loomis said. “There was never any hard feelings, at least from our standpoint. I understood, hey, there’s a gray area here. There’s an opening with the language of the CBA. He pursued that, and he should have. That’s what any prudent person would have done. It’s funny because, look, Jimmy is an awesome guy. And he’s obviously a great player…. He’s a great guy who wants to do well. He always wanted to stay with us. We always wanted him to be here.”
Graham said Wednesday that the business of the offseason has been put aside and now it’s all about football and preparing for the season.
“I’m back to football,” Graham said. “And, really, that’s been all my focus, is catching back up and making sure that I’ll be ready Week 1. It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past. I’m gonna be judged on each game from now on. So that’s not my concern at all.”
Graham became the league’s highest-paid tight end with his new contract. He received a $12 million signing bonus and is to make $13 million for this season, more than he would have made if he’d been awarded the wide receiver salary level as the franchise player.
He led the league with 16 touchdown catches last year. Graham was slowed last season by a ligament injury in his foot, a partially torn plantar fascia, but still had 86 catches for 1,215 yards. He has averaged 90 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per season over the past three years.
Graham said Wednesday it’s not all about his receiving numbers, though, and he believes he continues to improve as an all-around player.
“I think people look too much for like a ton of numbers,” he said. “And really, I think I’m growing as a player still. I think I’m getting better as a player and that’s all I can ask for, is to be better than the year before. If this team needs me to score a touchdown or to catch a ball or to block or to do something that changes the game, then I’m gonna do it. And then in the end, we’ll back and see where those numbers fall. But to me, I just want to get better.”
Graham says he’s fully healthy now. But he has had to do his work on the training camp practice field in recent days without Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has been out because of what the team has called a strained oblique muscle. Brees was on the field Wednesday, doing some running and throwing, but did not participate in drills. Backups Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin have taken over.
“I’ve caught a couple touchdowns from a number other than 9 for the first time in my career,” Graham said. “So it’s been good to work on that communication with those guys. And they’ve done a great job because they have so much on them as far as all the responsibilities that we put on our quarterback is a lot. You’ve got to call the protection. You’ve got three plays in your mind … and all these checks are very difficult. I’m somewhat of a unique player with a lot of my routes are option routes. And me and Drew have such a feel for those things. He knows based off my body language what I’m gonna do, and the ball’s always there. So now with working that with the other [quarterbacks], it’s been good.”