Gallery: Saints, Bucs game action _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) scores a touchdown in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013.

Along with congratulatory wishes, Vernon Davis, Jordan Cameron and the NFL’s other elite tight ends, plus those that aspire to be, should be sending Jimmy Graham thank you cards.

According to analyst Joel Corry of The National Football Post, not only has Graham set a new earnings standard for his position, his appeal of the arbitrator’s ruling that classified him as a tight end for franchise purposes could lead to a new definition for the position as well.

The blurring of the line between tight ends and wide receivers when it comes to their $5 million franchise tag difference has created a likely scenario of it being narrowed to something like the $2 million difference between defensive ends and outside linebackers in the next round of collective bargaining.

“The appeal probably won’t be pursued now,” Corry said after Graham and the Saints reached an agreement for a four-year, $40 million contract Tuesday. “But it, and the other facts brought out in Graham’s grievance hearing are going to be

used in future negotiations.

“So everybody benefits.”

Davis, whose skills include being superior in run-blocking to Graham, signed a five-year, $36.75 million deal with San Francisco in 2011 after just two seasons in the NFL. But Davis is now seeking to renegotiate at Graham-money levels or better. He has already skipped OTAs and minicamp seeking a new contact.

Davis could become a now-rare training camp holdout using the Graham contact as his asking price.

Cameron had 80 receptions for 917 yards for the Cleveland Browns last season, his third, when he made the Pro Bowl. After the Graham ruling, Cameron changed his Twitter profile from “tight end” to “pass catcher” in anticipation of going for a lucrative contact in 2015. And rising stars like Tyler Eifert of Cincinnati and Julius Thomas of Denver, also must be viewing Graham’s numbers as a target to exceed.

Graham’s contract reflects the continuing evolution of tight ends from blockers who were primarily used as pass-catchers in short-yardage situations to frequent slot receivers who became deep threats worthy of drawing cornerbacks and safeties in coverage rather than linebackers.

“It’s becoming more and more about mismatches,” Corry said. “And Graham is more capable of creating them than just about anyone else. He’s a unique talent.”

In total money, Graham’s $40 million doesn’t top the $54 million New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in 2012. But Gronkowski’s deal was for six years, making the average $9 million. And it had only $13.1 million in guaranteed money, compared to Graham’s $21 million guarantee. Furthermore, Graham is receiving a $3 million immediate signing bonus, putting him, for this season at least, among the top wide receivers, which is the level he sought to be paid at in the first place.

Either way, according to Sportrac, an analytics website, Graham is worth what he’s getting — and maybe more.

Compared to the four highest-paid tight ends in the first and second years of their second contacts, Gronkowski, Davis, Jason Witten of Dallas and Aaron Hernandez, Gronkowski’s now-infamous ex-teammate, Graham’s 2012 and 2013 averages of games played (15.5), receptions per game (5.5), total receptions (85,5), receiving yards 1.098.5), time targeted 132) and receiving touchdowns (12.5) are 28 percent better.

Compared to a similar set of wide receivers, Dez Bryant of Dallas, Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona, Brandon Marshall of Chicago and Marques Colston, Graham’s teammate with the Saints, he’s 2.1 percent better, primarily on the strength of his higher number of TD receptions. That, Michael Ginnitti of Sportrac wrote, projected to a five-year, $58.4 million deal with a whopping $28.9 guaranteed.

Obviously Graham didn’t get that.

But, Corry pointed out, a four-year contract enables Graham to renegotiate in just three years when he will still only be 30, not 32 when veteran players, regardless of position, usually find themselves facing pay cuts rather than raises. Also, four years coincides with the possible finale of Drew Brees’ career (He’ll be 39 at end the of the 2018 season).

According to ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight analytics site, tight ends benefit from playing with elite quarterbacks far more than wide receivers, none more so over the past three seasons than Graham, at least when using quarterback fantasy points as an indicator.

“As talented as Graham is, he’s certainly fortunate to have Drew Brees instead of Tim Tebow,” Corry said. “Brees is the best at hitting his receivers in stride.

“If Graham stays healthy, he’s going to be able to cash in one more time before he’s done.”