It could have been argued that Drew Brees, Sean Payton and Jimmy Graham were the faces of the New Orleans Saints.
That argument is now null and void.
In a surprising move, the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday traded Graham and a fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round draft pick.
“Decisions like these are always difficult, and we wish Jimmy the best of luck. We’re excited to add Max to our offensive line,” Payton said in a statement released by the team. “He is a tough, physical player where he blocked for one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL. He has been a solid contributor to Seattle’s success.”
The deal was finalized just before 3 p.m., minutes before the free-agency period opened. However, New Orleans shopped Graham to at least one other team and began discussing the deal with Seattle at some point Saturday night, according to various reports.
New Orleans now has the No. 13 and No. 31 picks in this year’s draft — something General Manager Mickey Loomis is excited about.
“With the first-round draft pick, we will have the opportunity to impact our team for years to come,” Loomis said.
The stunning move caught several Saints players by surprise, and they began tweeting their reactions almost immediately after the deal was reported.
“Dizzying to say the least,” defensive end Cam Jordan wrote. “(Graham) you family bro, great teammate even better friend.”
“Speechless right now,” tight end Ben Watson wrote. “Love you boy. There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
By trading Graham, the Saints saved $2 million against the salary cap. But Unger, 28, has a cap charge of $4.5 million, meaning the deal comes in at a net loss of $2.5 million in cap space.
Graham also had a $5 million roster bonus that could have been converted to a signing bonus to provide additional cap relief, if he had stuck around.
He becomes the third veteran player to depart this offseason after the team also parted ways with running back Pierre Thomas and linebacker Curtis Lofton.
It would appear Unger is now the favorite to start at center next season, with last year’s starter, Jonathan Goodwin, hitting the open market Tuesday.
A first-team All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler, Unger appeared in six games last season, missing the majority of the season with an ankle injury. He returned in time for the playoffs and started in Seattle’s Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.
Playing 562 snaps last season between the regular season and playoffs, Unger allowed eight quarterback hurries and no sacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The interior offensive line was considered a weakness for New Orleans last season. Acquiring Unger could change that perception, assuming guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return for 2015. Both players have been considered potential salary-cap casualties because of their high salaries.
Graham, 28, was a third-round pick in the 2010 draft and quickly rose to stardom with the Saints. He made the Pro Bowl three times and was named a first-team All-Pro in 2013. His 4,752 receiving yards over his first five seasons were the most ever by a tight end.
The 6-foot-7 tight end returned to the Saints last summer on a four-year deal worth $40 million. Before signing the deal, New Orleans placed the franchise tag on Graham, which led to lengthy battle over whether he should be considered a tight end or a wide receiver. It was eventually determined he should be considered a tight end.
Graham made the Pro Bowl last season, but his production was down by his standards. After catching 86 passes for 1,215 yards with 16 touchdowns in 2013, he caught 85 passes for 889 yards with 10 touchdowns last season.
But Graham suffered a shoulder injury during a Week 5 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that hindered him throughout the season. Over the final five games of the season, he caught 20 passes for 219 yards.
During a December interview with The Advocate, Graham admitted the injury bothered him throughout the season. But after testing his shoulder at the Pro Bowl, it was determined he would not need offseason surgery.
It’s not immediately clear how New Orleans will replace Graham. The team still has Ben Watson and Josh Hill at tight end, but neither player is the same caliber of receiver as Graham. It’s likely the offense will change to some degree, with Brees having to rely more on his core wide receivers Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston.
It’s also possible the team will become more reliant on the running game with a stronger offensive line. The team also recently re-signed running back Mark Ingram to a four-year, $16 million contract.