The buzz surrounding a possible Jimmy Graham-New Orleans Saints reunion picked up on Monday.
New Orleans was the most popular free-agent destination for Graham in a poll of ESPN NFL insiders. Then a report from the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero said Graham isn’t expected to be back with the Seattle Seahawks, and the Saints should be among several teams interested.
That led to an excited response from Saints running back Mark Ingram. Last week, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan was openly courting Graham to come back to New Orleans.
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How realistic is the idea?
That’s hard to say, given that Graham and the Saints didn’t part on the best of terms when Graham was traded to Seattle in 2015. Graham tweeted to former teammate Akiem Hicks later that year that he should “feel blessed u got out of there.”
The relationship apparently turned south when Graham and the Saints battled over his contract in 2014, including an arbitration hearing over whether he should be considered a tight end or wide receiver.
I have not been able to glean from any sources yet whether a reunion is possible. But I also have not heard anyone suggest that a lingering rift could prevent it. Both sides should definitely be interested, given that neither has been as effective without the other.
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Not only did Graham’s production dip in Seattle (partly due to a torn patellar tendon), but the Saints also have not been able to replace him successfully in their offense, despite spending big on Coby Fleener in free agency in 2016.
Last year, the Saints ranked last in the NFL in tight end receiving yardage (476) and 31st in tight end receptions (45), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Saints still ranked fifth in the NFL in passing yards overall. But the lack of a go-to tight end really hurt them on third downs, in which they finished a stunning 19th in the NFL with a conversion rate of 37.6 percent.
That’s why I have tight end ranked No. 2 in my position-by-position breakdown of the Saints’ offseason needs. If they don’t sign Graham, they could pursue the Philadelphia Eagles’ Trey Burton, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Tyler Eifert or a premium draft pick, among other options:
Current depth chart:
Coby Fleener. Age 29, signed through 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $6.4 million ($3.4 million has already been guaranteed). 2018 salary-cap number: $8 million.
Josh Hill. Age 27, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $2 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $2.833 million.
Michael Hoomanawanui. Age 29, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $1.6 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $1.933 million.
John Phillips. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.
Garrett Griffin. Turned 24 on Sunday, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
Clay Harbor. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.
Alex Ellis. Age 25, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
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Graham put up some outrageous numbers in his five years in New Orleans, including 99 catches for 1,310 yards in 2011 and 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013.
But he comes with more question marks now that he is 31 years old and has battled injuries and inconsistency the past three years in Seattle (57 catches for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns last season; 65-923-6 in 2016; 48-605-2 in 11 games before the knee injury in 2015).
Plus, Graham was never a standout blocker. And the Saints deemed him expendable for a reason in 2015: deciding that their offense would be fine without such a major investment, while the defense and offensive line needed more help (just like their decision to trade away receiver Brandin Cooks last year).
The Saints looked smart in 2015, when veteran tight end Benjamin Watson had a career year (74-825-6). But they haven’t gotten anywhere close to the production they expected from Fleener over the past two years (a total of 72-926-5 in 27 games before his season ended with a concussion last year).
It’s possible that the Saints could consider releasing Fleener this year, especially if they invest heavily in another free agent or draft pick. Although they have already guaranteed $3.4, they could save $3 million by releasing him.
Hill and Hoomanawanui, meanwhile, have both been very solid and versatile backups for the Saints, who are good blockers and decent pass-catchers. But they’re both better in part-time roles, and both of them are heading into the final year of their contracts.
No. 3 Linebackers
No. 4 Cornerbacks
No. 5 Receivers
No. 6 Safeties
No. 7 Defensive tackles
No. 8 Quarterbacks
No. 9 Offensive tackles
No. 10 Guards/centers
No. 11 Running backs
No. 12 Specialists