Updates from Monday, July 14
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints tight end. That's the first phrase that pops up when reading Graham's Twitter biography. Now, "tight end" officially defines his status in the NFL, too, as independent arbitrator Stephen Burbank declined his appeal Wednesday to be paid at the wide receiver franchise tag level.
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com passed along the news of the decision:
Albert Breer of NFL.com also passed along the reasoning behind the decision:
Rapoport later reported on how this will impact the two sides striking a long-term extension via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:
Now that Jimmy Graham is locked in as a tight end under the franchise tag, the question is whether he can agree to a long-term contract with the New Orleans Saints by the July 15 deadline for franchised players.
NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Wednesday's edition of NFL Total Access that agent Jimmy Sexton and general manager Mickey Loomis will be starting at "ground zero" in negotiations.
Both sides were waiting for Wednesday's ruling as a benchmark for talks. Graham now has 10 days to appeal, which looms as a potential complication.
There is a very real possibility, per Rapoport, that Graham will balk at signing his tender if there is no agreement by the deadline.
Burbank sided with the NFL's argument in the grievance hearing, which stated he should earn the tight end franchise tag over the one given to wide receivers.
Citing data that showed he lined up way more in traditional "wide receiver" positions on the field—either in the slot or split outside—than the traditional tight end stance, Graham challenged New Orleans' ability to tender him the tight end tag. The franchise tag is paid out as the mean of the highest five salaries at a particular position.
The dichotomy means a lot more than $5 million for both sides. Being considered a wide receiver meant huge leverage for Graham in long-term contract negotiations with the Saints. New Orleans has just over $1 million in salary-cap space with Graham having a hold of $7.035 million, per Spotrac.com.
Burbank ruling in favor of Graham would have created a situation where the Saints would have to release players or rapidly work out a long-term deal with a low first-year cap number. In essence, it would have forced their hand to acquiesce to whatever demands Graham and his agent laid on the table. The wide receiver tag also would have upped Graham's ability to ask for so-called wide receiver money.
The opposite is true for Graham. Graham is unquestionably the best "tight end" in football. But, as evidenced by the difference in their tag numbers, tight ends are not given nearly the same value around the NFL. Rob Gronkowski has the highest average salary for a tight end at $9 million. There are nine receivers who have deals averaging $9 million or more per season.
Graham can still appeal Burbank's ruling. It's possible, albeit unlikely, that we'll see a change here that shifts the ruling in his way. The NFLPA issued a statement on the ruling on its website, indicating it would support Graham in the next step of the process:
The NFLPA will review with Jimmy Graham the decision from Arbitrator Stephen Burbank which permits the player to be designated as a tight end for Franchise Tag purposes. We will advise Graham of his options and carefully determine next steps in this matter.
We will also continue to assist Graham and his representation as necessary to help the player reach a fair long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints.
But this result will only create greater tension in a relationship that's seemed increasingly frayed as the offseason has gone along. The Saints have been public—and often harsh—in their dismissal of Graham as a tight end.
"Isn't that what we drafted him as?" general manager Mickey Loomis told reporters last month. "Isn't that what he made the Pro Bowl as? That's what we see him as, a tight end...That's what makes him valuable."
Even quarterback Drew Brees has been a bit dismissive. He was strident in calling Graham a "tight end" in January before relenting a bit and calling him a "hybrid" in June. He also seemed confident that the Saints offense could survive with or without Graham in the fold.
"Look at our numbers over the last eight years," Brees told reporters. "We've had a lot of different guys in there. Jimmy's only been here four years. He's only been here half the time. We were putting up some pretty big numbers before he got here, and we've been putting up some big numbers since he's been here."
One other tight end, Greg Olson of the Carolina Panthers, approved of the decision:
Graham, 27, has made the Pro Bowl two of the last three years and was a first-team All-Pro in 2013. He finished 15th in the league with 1,215 receiving yards and was 13th with 86 receptions, though it's arguably Graham's nose for the end zone that makes him special. His 16 receiving touchdowns were an NFL high last year and he's touched paydirt 36 times over the last three seasons.
When compared to other tight ends, only a fully healthy Gronkowski can match Graham's effect. Judging him against the game's best wideouts is when it becomes far more tricky. He's not on the level of Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, A.J. Green and other truly elite wideouts. Those guys can stretch the field and make the difficult catches in the middle of the field. Graham has never made a catch of 60 yards or more and his yards per reception average ranked 32nd in 2013.
At the heart of the issue here is whether Graham is the game's best tight end or merely a very good NFL receiver. There is no "hybrid" option made available by NFL bylaw.
When it comes down to it, that more than anything is why Burbank ruled in favor of the league.
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