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Saints once faced choice between Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez

Jimmy Graham turned out to be the best choice in all respects for the New Orleans Saints in the NFL Draft (Photo: Parker Waters).Jimmy Graham turned out to be the best choice in all respects for the New Orleans Saints in the NFL Draft (Photo: Parker Waters).

NEW ORLEANS -- Jimmy Graham or Aaron Hernandez?

New Orleans Saints officials had their choice of the two collegiate tight ends and other top prospects when it came time to make a selection in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft. Both were available when the Black and Gold went on the clock at No. 95 on the night of April 23.

The Saints ended up taking Graham, a four-year basketball player at the University of Miami who caught the eye of Coach Sean Payton and team officials after playing only one season with the Hurricanes' football team.

Though Hernandez displayed first-round ability in three productive seasons at Florida, he entered the draft as a high risk/reward prospect and fell to the New England Patriots in the fourth round, 18 picks later.

Now we know why. He had issues.

Hernandez, 23, is facing a first-degree murder charge and multiple gun charges after being arrested in the shooting death of semipro football player Odin Lloyd. He remains in jail without bond and already has forfeited tens of millions in potential earnings after being dumped by the Patriots.

His career appears to be finished at the tender age of 23.

Just 26 with plenty of upside, Graham's future is extremely bright.

Already considered one of the NFL's top receiving tight ends after three seasons, Graham is entering the last year of a $2.455 million rookie contract that included a signing bonus of $665,140. He is scheduled to make a base salary of $1.323 million this season.

Yes, he has outplayed his contract (215 catches, 2,648 yards, 25 TDs) and stands to become a very rich man next offseason if allowed to become an unrestricted free agent.

Provided Graham stays on course this season, an educated guess says a deal will be struck before that happens, or, at the very least, team officials will place the franchise tag on him before the start of free agency ensuring he remains in New Orleans in 2014.

Lack of production in 2013 obviously could lower his value. A good season would retain his present value. A blockbuster season could elevate him to rarefied air.

Consider:

-- The Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year, $40 million contract extension in August 2012 that included a $12.5 million signing bonus, the highest signing bonus paid out to an NFL tight end.

-- Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (the 42nd overall pick in 2010) signed a six-year, $53 million extension months earlier in 2012, the richest contract for a tight end in NFL history. That included $16.5 million in guaranteed money.

-- Other high-paid NFL tight ends include San Francisco's Vernon Davis ($23m guaranteed), San Diego's Antonio Gates ($20.4m guaranteed), St. Louis' Jared Cook ($19m guaranteed), Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis ($19m guaranteed) and Seattle's Zach Miller ($17m guaranteed), among others.

So where does Graham fit?

When all is said and done, maybe at the top of the tight end heap, $10 million to $12 million annually in New Orleans or elsewhere. Time will tell.

If Graham continues to be deployed in the Saints' high-octane offense as a wide receiver for a high percentage of snaps this season, don't be surprised if Graham's representative (Jimmy Sexton of CAA) tries to get his client WR-type money and not tight end-type money at the bargaining table.

For a cap-strapped team like the Saints, the distinction could mean the difference in Graham staying in New Orleans or leaving for greener pastures. The 2013 franchise tag for a tight end was $6m, $10m for a wide receiver.

That, too, is a topic for another day.

Meantime, Graham will continue to freely chase his NFL dream while Hernandez can only dream of becoming free one day.

We know where Graham stood on the Saints' draft board. And while it's unknown where Hernandez stood, Saints officials clearly made the right choice on that April day in 2010, hands down.

Or, in the case of Aaron Hernandez' arrested development, hands up.

 

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