As Broncos negotiate with Julius Thomas, Saints sign Jimmy Graham to $40M contract

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The market for tight ends has been set. How much is Denver's Julius Thomas worth?

The New Orleans Saints signed Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to a four-year, $40 million contract on Tuesday morning. The deal includes $21 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

The deal averages $10 million a year and is unlikely to be topped by a tight end anytime soon. Graham reigns supreme at his position after averaging 90 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last three seasons. The closest to Graham in terms of production is Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is earning an average of $9 million per season in New England.

Still, big contracts for the top two TEs in the league can only be good news for the likes of guys like Denver's Julius Thomas and San Francisco's Vernon Davis. Thomas began negotiating a long-term deal with the Broncos in June; Davis may holdout from 49ers training camp, seeking a new deal.

Davis is due to make $4.7 million in 2014. That's not bad for a 30-year-old tight end, but as one of the top TEs in the NFL, Davis wants to be paid like Graham and Gronkowski. As for Thomas, he's still looking to make his first million.

Thomas was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL drafted and signed a four-year, $1,683,000 contract with Denver. Entering the final year of his contract, Thomas is set to earn a career-high $645,000 this season.

Thomas is coming off a breakout season in which he caught 65 passes for 788 yards, both good for eighth overall among TEs in 2013. Though not among the top at his position in terms of receptions and yards, Thomas was money in the red zone for Denver, catching 12 touchdown passes, trailing on Graham's 16 and Davis' 13.

Unfortunately for Thomas, who battled injuries during his first two seasons in the NFL, 2013 marked the first time that he caught more than one pass in a single season. Denver may be hesitant to pay Thomas top tight end money coming off just one Pro Bowl season.

"Julius has two problems," former NFL agent Joel Corry (@corryjoel) told MHR on Tuesday. "He only has one year track record of production, and Demaryius Thomas is poised to get a huge deal."

There's no question that D-Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowler and arguably one of the best WRs in the game, is a higher priority for Denver than J-Thomas, who is looking to prove he is more than just a one-year wonder.

With all that said, Corry confirmed that Graham's big contract will benefit Julius. The best tight ends are making over $8 million a season. As an up-and-coming tight end, Thomas will be looking for over $7 million.

"I would be surprised if his agent asked for anything below the max value of Jared Cook's deal," Corry said, referencing the five-year, $35.1 million deal that Cook signed with the St. Louis Rams last offseason. Cook's deal has a max value of $38.6 million and includes $16 million in guaranteed money, $5 million less than Graham received.

The Broncos, says Corry, may be looking for something closer to Dennis Pitta's deal. Pitta recently signed a five-year, $32 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens that also includes $16 million in guarantees.

Combined, Cook and Pitta make an average of $6.7 million per season. Thomas will be looking for at least $7 million.

Based on the recent tight end deals that have been negotiated, J-Thomas may be looking at a four-to-five year deal worth between $27-$35 million with over $15 million in guarantees. If Denver signs D-Thomas to a long-term deal, however, J-Thomas may have to play out the final year of his contract.

"Julius' best deal may come from another good season," Corry said.

Thomas, a 6-5, 250-pound converted basketball star, is well-aware of the big deal Graham just received. In line to receive a long-term deal of his own, Thomas' payday is coming. The only question is—when?

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