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Jimmy Graham takes over as the NFL's top-paid TE ... but who's next?

Jimmy Graham is expected to receive $21 million guaranteed in his new four-year, $40 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Photo:

Jimmy Graham is expected to receive $21 million guaranteed in his new four-year, $40 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.

Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints reportedly have come to terms on a four-year, $40 million contract, just ahead of Tuesday's franchise tag deadline. Had the deal not been struck by 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, Graham would have had no real choice but to sign his tag tender for the 2014 season before broaching free agency again next summer.

The new contract gives Graham the highest average salary at his position, surpassing the $9 million-per-year commitment made to Rob Gronkowski by the Patriots in 2012. The title of "highest-paid player" tends to be a fleeting one (particularly at quarterback), but Graham's status among his peers and his impressive financial haul means he may hold those bragging rights for some time to come.

However, there are a few more TE contract debates on the horizon that could change the landscape again.

• Jordan Cameron, Browns (contract expires: 2015)

Cameron sure looked like the NFL's next great tight end last season as he caught 80 balls for more than 900 yards. He could play an even larger role in the 2014 Cleveland offense, what with Josh Gordon likely gone for the entire season. And Cameron, 26 next month, already began thinking ahead to free agency -- following the initial ruling in Graham's case, Cameron changed his Twitter bio (a piece of evidence used against Graham) from tight end to "pass catcher".

Graham had three seasons as a full-time starter under his belt when his contract came up; Cameron will have just two, assuming he maintains his No. 1 job throughout the coming year. He still may command truckloads of money, and the constantly increasing salary cap could push his numbers into Graham territory.

Julius Thomas, Broncos (contract expires: 2015)

In terms of being a pure red-zone threat, Thomas might have been the TE closest to Graham last season. He hauled in 12 scoring tosses from Peyton Manning despite missing a pair of games. Thomas' 788 yards fell well shy of Graham's and Cameron's, but it is important to keep in mind that the hoops player-turned-emerging football star remains a work in progress. That is to say, a 788-yard, 12-TD season may merely have been scratching the surface of what's to come.

"I've kind of been keeping ... an eye on that situation, obviously, because it could probably come back to affect a lot of us tight ends," Thomas told the Associated Press of Graham's standoff with the Saints. "But the way I feel about it is, 'Does two letters next to your name on the depth chart really determine your value to a team?'"

Does Thomas deserve to be in the same conversation as Graham? Well, if he's franchise tagged next offseason, he will be, regardless of the answer. Otherwise, the Broncos might want to get him locked up long-term sooner rather than later, in case he cranks it up another notch in 2014.

Vernon Davis, 49ers (contract expires: 2016)

Davis remains among the top handful of tight ends in the NFL and his 13-touchdown 2013 season was rewarded with a Pro Bowl berth. Unlike Graham and especially Thomas, Davis also plays a critical role in the 49ers' run game -- a run game that can at times cut into the number of passes thrown his direction.

The San Francisco tight end has made no bones about wanting an extension before a new contract becomes a necessity, hence his decision to skip OTAs and minicamp. Davis also may choose to holdout into training camp, though the 49ers reportedly are holding firm against negotiating with players who are not present.

Working against Davis landing a Graham-like deal: his age. He will be 31 in January and 32 before his current contract runs out prior to '16. A record-breaking, follow-up deal is unlikely, despite Davis' value to the 49ers.

Tyler Eifert, Bengals (contract expires: 2017/18)

We're still waiting on one of the 16 tight ends drafted in 2013 to emerge as a star; undrafted Tim Wright actually led the rookies at this position in catches last season, with 54. Eifert, Zach Ertz, Jordan Reed and Mychal Rivera may be closest to a breakthrough, based on last season's performance. There are yet three more offseasons before this class reaches free agency -- possibly four in Eifert's case, if the Bengals opt to utilize their fifth-year option on his contract.

By that time, it is anyone's guess where the salary cap will be. Assuming it keeps trending upward, thus dragging player salaries along with it, this crop could get paid.

Eric Ebron, Lions (contract expires: 2018/19)

Basically, the same setup here for the most recent TE draft class. Ebron, like Eifert, by virtue of being a Round 1 pick, has the fifth-year team option slapped onto the end of his deal, so his free agency could be delayed by a year. The likes of Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jace Amaro and Troy Niklas -- all taken in Round 2 -- might wind up with an earlier shot at cashing in at the contract table.

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots (contract expires: 2020)

This may be the correct answer in the long-run, provided Gronkowski somehow can stay healthy for a couple of seasons. His current deal lasts all the way through the end of the 2019 season, at which point he will be 30. But the terms of that deal may force the issue far earlier than that. Specifically, a $10 million option bonus due Gronkowski prior to the 2016 season looms as just the nudge these two sides may need to hammer out another monster contract.

In 2012, Gronkowski inked a six-year extension carrying an annual salary of around $9 million. A mere $13.17 million of that agreement was guaranteed, though (plus an extra $5 million in injury guarantees). Most of the $55 million extension likely will not make it into Gronkowski's hands, at least not if the contract is kept as is.

Should Gronkowski find his old form over the next season-plus, the Patriots might move to rework the current contract structure, again allowing their star to claim the title of highest-paid tight end for a spell

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