NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The New Orleans Saints have placed their franchise tag on Jimmy Graham in order to protect the club's rights to its star tight end through next season.
The move means Graham, barring a holdout, will almost certainly play for New Orleans next season for no less than the tight end franchise tag of $7.04 million.
It is also possible, under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, that Graham could be tagged as a receiver because of how often he lined up split wide from the line. That would carry a tag of $12.3 million.
Once Graham's tag has been determined, the two sides could continue to argue that matter before an arbitrator. That appears to be the likely process as both side aim to determine precisely how much negotiating leverage they have before hammering out a long-term deal.
Similarly, the Saints use their franchise tag on quarterback Drew Brees in March 2012, then needed a little more than four months to work out the five-year, $100 million deal Brees signed shortly before training camp.
Like Brees, Graham is represented by Creative Artists Agency. They do not have the same agent. Graham is represented by Jimmy Sexton and Brees by Tom Condon.
The move, confirmed by team spokesman Greg Bensel, was expected as part of what is widely anticipated to be a protracted negotiation between the team and one of the best young tight ends in the NFL
Graham has said publicly during the Pro Bowl in February that it would be ''unfortunate,'' if the team used the franchise tag on him, but on Friday he reacted to the move with subtle humor.
Afterward, Graham wrote on his Twitter account, ''Confirming it's officially Franchisefriday... TAG ... I guess I'm it.''
Graham, a former college basketball who played one year of football at Miami, was drafted by the Saints in 2010. Last season, he led the Saints in catches with 86, yards with 1,215 and touchdowns with 16.
He has led the Saints in catches in each of the past three seasons, while leading the club in yards receiving and touchdowns in two of the last three seasons.
During the past three regular seasons combined, he has 270 catches for 3,507 yards and 36 touchdowns.