On Wednesday, news came out about the NFL’s official ruling on whether or not New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham could be paid like a franchise wide receiver. According to Ian Rapoport from NFL.com, arbitrator Stephen Burbank has ruled that Graham is a tight end for franchise designation purposes.
Graham argued the case to the NFL’s management committee last month because he split out wide or in the slot on 67 percent of his snaps last year. He’s basically a “super-sized” wide receiver, and felt he should be compensated as such.
The difference between price tags for a franchise tight end or a franchise wide receiver is about $5 million. The Saints still have until July 15 to work out a new long-term deal with Graham, and now they have the upper hand in negotiations.
So how does this ruling impact the contract negotiations between the Broncos and Thomas? Let’s take a look.
Like Graham, Thomas had a similar path to the NFL. Both were college basketball stars with only one season of college football experience.
Graham played for the University of Miami in 2009, and in 13 games he barely flashed what his upside could be. He finished the year with only 17 catches for 213 yards and five touchdowns. At the Senior Bowl in January of 2010, Graham was a standout player during the week of practice.
Thomas played for Portland State in 2010 and had better statistical production than Graham did in his one year—albeit against inferior competition. He finished the year with 29 catches for 453 yards, two touchdowns and made first-team All-Big Sky. At the East-West Shrine Game in January of 2011, Thomas was a standout player alongside fellow basketball convert Jordan Cameron (Cleveland Browns).
The Saints plucked Graham from the available players in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft. The Broncos shocked some by selecting Thomas in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Graham had a solid rookie season with the Saints, posting a respectable 31 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns. In his second year with New Orleans, Graham absolutely blew up.
In 2011, Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. In the two years since then, Graham has hauled in 171 catches, 2,197 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s simply the best tight end in the game today, and many teams are looking for the next basketball-to-football star.
The Broncos already found that guy.
Thomas immediately flashed as a rookie in training camp for the Broncos. Coming out of the lockout, Thomas had zero experience with the team since there was no rookie minicamp, offseason training activities or mandatory minicamp that offseason. In four days of training camp, Thomas went from a surprise fourth-round pick to running with the first team almost exclusively.
His rookie season was cut short by an ankle injury, and he played only four games in 2011. He finished the year with a disappointing one catch for five yards (on seven targets).
During the 2012 offseason, the Broncos made the move to add Peyton Manning. Thomas was among the group of players Manning invited to work out privately at Valor High School after his signing. After those workouts, it was determined that Thomas needed to undergo surgery on the ankle he injured as a rookie.
The surgery knocked Thomas out for most of the 2012 season, and once again he played in only four contests. He was out of the lineup for most of the year, but his confidence was never shaken. Thomas told me during last year’s offseason, “Nobody leads the league in smiles more than I do.”
It didn’t take long for Thomas to show off his incredible skill set.
In Week 1 against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens, Thomas finished the game with five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t slow down after that.
Thomas finished 2013 with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was a favorite target for Manning as Thomas creates mismatches every time he’s on the field.
During the team’s mandatory minicamp, Thomas talked about getting a late start on his football career.
“It’s definitely not the easiest way to do it. I’ll never be able to make up those years in high school and college that other guys were able to be out there on the field learning the game. But I put in my extra time. Our coaches do a great job of helping me understand what I’m supposed to do, making things simple for me.” Thomas concluded, “So it’s a unique challenge. What can I do about it? It is what it is.”
So long as he stays healthy, Graham should continue to be among the league’s best at the tight end position. He’s only missed two games during his four-year career.
Thomas had a breakout year in 2013, and the best could be yet to come. Staying healthy is a concern for Thomas as he’s never played a full 16-game season. Thomas missed 24 games the first two years of his career, and he missed two games last year due to a minor knee problem.
If Thomas is healthy, then he should push Graham for the top tight end spot in the NFL.
Thomas recently told Ross Jones from FoxSports.com that the Broncos were going to use him a lot more creatively this year. This matches the hints we’ve gotten from Dove Valley this offseason.
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase talked about Thomas still learning the position and why the best may be in the near future.
“I think he’s just going to keep getting better. He works so hard. He’s a really smart player and person. So he understands what defenses are trying to do and I’m really excited to see what he can do this year.”
Franchise Tag or Contract?
The Broncos are working on a new contract for Thomas at this time. If there’s no movement in the situation, they could always place the franchise tag on Thomas next offseason.
Thomas has been monitoring the Graham situation this offseason.
“I’ve kind of been keeping, not a close eye, but a little bit of an eye on that situation [with the Saints’ Jimmy Graham] obviously, because it could probably come back to affect a lot of us tight ends. 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?’ And that’s kind of how I look at it. Does it matter if he’s a tight end, or if he calls himself a slot receiver or a running back?”
Thomas continued, “I mean, if you’re going to have double-digit touchdowns and contribute a bunch of yards in the receiving game, I just say that you’re a guy that makes great plays and is a value to his team. So I don’t know why the argument necessarily comes down to either you’re a tight end or a receiver. I think that if you’re a guy that makes plays, that’s how you should be valued.”
The difference in value of a franchise wide receiver versus that of a tight end has been the main point of curiosity for Thomas.
“That’s true. So I guess that’s why it’s a topic. But I’ll say again: I think if you’re a basketball player, they wouldn’t say, ‘Ah, you’re a power forward. Really look out for those point guards.’ So I don’t think that the position matters.”
Thomas succinctly wrapped up by saying, “I think if you’re a guy making plays for your team, then that should be your value.”
Tight end salaries are not out of control, and even when Graham gets his new deal, the price won’t be outrageous when compared to what wide receivers are pulling in today.
The highest-paid tight ends in terms of average annual salary are New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski ($9 million), Dallas Cowboys Jason Witten ($7.4 million) and the San Francisco 49ers Vernon Davis ($7.3 million).
Graham should get a contract near what Gronkowski received, and the terms could be about six years for around $60 million. Thomas might get a deal similar to what Antonio Gates signed with the San Diego Chargers in 2010. The terms could be around five years and $40 million.
Some think Graham cost himself money by listing himself as a tight end on his Twitter bio. This must have prompted Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron (also in a contract year) to change his bio to “Pro Bowl pass catcher” on Wednesday.
Thought no one would notice that minor change in the bio. Thanks @darrenrovell for calling me out.— Jordan Cameron (@jordancameron) July 2, 2014
We might see Thomas add a similar bio line on his Twitter profile too. As of right now, Thomas makes no mention of being a tight end on the social networking site.
Will the Broncos have to franchise tag Julius Thomas in 2015?
The arbitrator’s ruling on Graham’s franchise-tag designation is good for the Broncos, but ultimately bad for Thomas.
The Broncos need to get contracts done for both Julius Thomas and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. It’s not an either/or situation, and the team can find a way to compensate both properly.
General manager John Elway has a clear vision for what this roster is going to look like. He’s going to work diligently to find a proper contract for the best sleeper pick the Broncos have added during Elway’s time in the front office.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.