Best value in NFL? Jimmy Graham

Let’s assume New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis is able to work out a deal to re-sign quarterback Drew Brees. It will be complicated and expensive, but it’s also pretty much guaranteed to happen.

The Saints want it to happen, Brees wants it to happen and every Louisiana resident from Bogalusa to Lake Charles wants it to happen. Then, let’s assume that Loomis also is able to find a way to re-sign guard Carl Nicks and receiver Marques Colston. Those assumptions aren’t as solid as Brees re-signing because there are only so many ways to cut the pie that is the salary cap.

But, let’s just hypothetically say, Loomis, who has a pretty good track record, gets all three deals done. Aside from re-signing a few lower-level free agents, maybe bringing in a free agent or two and conducting a draft without a first-round pick, Loomis’ work would seem to be pretty much done. But that may not be the case.

The Saints have another potential contract situation percolating. As best I know, there haven’t been any threats or holdouts, but the Saints almost have to do something about the contract of tight end Jimmy Graham.

He remains under contract through 2013. Perhaps more than any other player in the NFL, Graham has outperformed his contract and that generally leads to a new deal.

In 2011, only his second year in the NFL, Graham had one of the best seasons ever by a tight end. He caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s 25 and he’s only going to get better.

When you look at Graham’s production and potential, it’s easy to make a case he’s the NFL’s most underpaid tight end. Heck, he might be the most underpaid player in the NFL, period.

Graham’s still playing on his rookie contract, which was standard for the third-round pick he was in 2010. But he’s scheduled to make only $540,000 in 2012 and $575,000 in 2013.

Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez signed a one-year extension at the end of the 2011 season that will pay him just about $7 million. Gonzalez might be the best tight ever. But Gonzalez also is on the downside of his career and I don’t think there’s any doubt Graham’s better at this point.

In 2011, the average tight end salary was $1.27 million and Graham’s far better than average. In terms of average per year, Graham ranked No. 33 in the NFL, according to contracts that were in effect for 2011. For context, Tampa Bay backup Luke Stocker ranked two spots ahead of Graham.

I think you can make a pretty strong case that Graham needs to jump up at least 30 spots to be paid what he’s worth. Again, I don’t think Graham’s threatening a holdout and he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would resort to that kind of tactic.

But Graham is obviously a core player for the Saints and he’s a guy they want to keep happy. Yeah, they could play hardball and make Graham play out his rookie contract. But that’s bound to create at least some resentment.

The guy has become one of the league’s two or three best tight ends. It doesn’t have to happen immediately. But, at some point, the Saints need to pay Graham like one of the league’s best tight ends.