Teams were able to place the franchise tag (an option that each franchise can use just once per offseason and basically solidifies that said player will remain with the team for at least one more year) beginning this week, and two names are mentioned most often in connection with the Seattle Seahawks: Jimmy Graham and Sheldon Richardson.
For the most part, Richardson has been the player people expect to get tagged, if any, but Graham must be taken into consideration as well. He was basically Seattle’s goal-line back in 2017, catching 10 touchdowns and being the most-targeted NFL red zone threat on the season. Said teammate Doug Baldwin back in November:
“We’ve been harping on perfecting that pass in the red zone,” Baldwin said. “It’s got to be easy for us. Russ has got to make the throw, Jimmy’s got to make the catch. That should be automatic for us. It’s been working out pretty well.”
Followed by Pete Carroll:
“I know everyone’s been wanting to see that and we’re seeing that,” coach Pete Carroll said. “Jimmy is doing a great job and Russell is doing a great job with it. He’s just that kind of player. You know it’s coming and you can get it anyway. Pretty extraordinary.”
These were Jimmy Graham’s red zone stats in 2017:
26 targets (tied for most with Rob Gronkowski, Cooper Kupp)
16 catches (tied for second-most with Kupp, behind Jarvis Landry, who received the franchise tag earlier this week from the Miami Dolphins)
10 touchdowns (most)
These were Graham’s numbers inside the 10:
16 targets (second-most, behind Julio Jones’ 17)
8 catches (tied for second-most, behind Landry’s 11)
8 touchdowns (second-most, behind Landry’s 9)
That’s all really good, but what is it worth to Seattle? Because Graham cost $10 million in 2017, the most by any tight end in the NFL, and his cap hit would only go up with a franchise tag. In fact, it would go way up. According to Joel Corry, a cap expert for CBS Sports, it would be more than a 50% increase:
A Jimmy Graham franchise tag is more expensive than some might think. By CBA rule, the $3M of 2017 signing bonus proration when he did the deal in 2014 is included in the 120% calculation. It's $15.480M ($12.9M x 120%), then his $100,000 2017 workout bonus gets included.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) February 22, 2018
As of now, the highest-paid tight end in 2018 is set to be Gronkowski, who will make $10.9 million with the New England Patriots. (That is if Gronkowski opts to return, as rumors of an early retirement continue to linger.) To pay Graham $4-5 million more than that would be a significant move and could hamper the Seahawks’ ability to retain their other free agents or to look for outside help. It would make more sense if Seattle could defer Graham’s heaviest cost to 2019, when they’ll have an estimated $81 million+ in cap room as of right now.
They obviously can’t do that with a franchise tag, and even negotiating after the tag is placed, would give much of the leverage to Graham. The New Orleans Saints gave Graham the franchise tag in 2014 and he went to an arbitrator to try and argue that he was a receiver, not a tight end, and should be paid as such. Graham lost that battle, but in doing so did reveal that he’s never one to settle for less than what he believes he deserves.
As a top red zone threat, Graham deserves to be paid as a high-end tight end. But $15 million is not a high-end tight end, it’s a tight end floating in space. A tag for him seems unlikelier than ever and it was already pretty unlikely.