The Saints argued that Jimmy Graham was a tight end, with one of those arguments hinging on Graham's Twitter profile. Apparently, arbitrator Stephen Burbank agreed. According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, Burbank found that New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will indeed remain classified as a tight end, costing him more than $5 million in salary this season because of the NFL's franchise tag rules.
The Jimmy Graham decision is out. Burbank has ruled he’s a tight end. The Saints have won— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 2, 2014
Graham had hoped to be classified as a wide receiver, because under the league's rules, players tagged as tight ends make $7 million, while players tagged as wide receivers make $12.3 million. He claims he had a case to be named a wide receiver, because he was used more as a traditional wide receiver than he was as a traditional tight end.
Both sides had legitimate arguments. The union argued that 67 percent of the time, Graham lined up where a wide receiver would line up, meaning he is a de facto wide receiver even if the team wants to call him a tight end. However, the NFL argued that Graham meets with tight ends, and even considers himself one in his Twitter bio.
Had Graham been considered a wide receiver, that would have set a precedent for more pass-catching tight ends to fight to change their salaries. For the Saints, the decision has to be one of relief. Had they been forced to pay Graham more money, they would have had to move money around elsewhere to stay under the league's salary cap.
The Saints have approximately $1.59 million in cap space, and if Graham's salary is bumped up, the team may have to make a significant cut.
Can Graham appeal?
It all depends on how Graham's camp feels about the ruling and their relationship with the Saints in the wake of a contentious arbitration battle.
NFLPA stands by Graham
The union lost its fight to have Graham classified as a wide receiver instead of a tight end.
First, Graham's camp has to decide within 10 days whether or not they want to appeal the decision, which seems likely. An appeal would go a three-person panel to make a final ruling on the matter. Wednesday's decision leaves the Saints with leverage going into the appeal hearing.
That 10-day turnaround complicates things with the July 15 deadline for negotiating a long-term deal with players who received the franchise tag.
What about a long-term contract?
That would be the best course of action for both sides, and the most likely one. Graham's an essential part of the Saints offense and a superstar; he's not a player they can easily replace, not if they plan on making a Super Bowl run anytime soon.
The two sides have just under two weeks to reach an agreement, and the Saints have an edge with leverage thanks to the arbitrator's ruling. It would be hard to imagine Graham taking a deal that doesn't make him the league's highest paid tight end. At the moment, four tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates) make more than Graham, in terms of average annual salary.
What does it mean for the league?
It's getting harder and harder to tell what separates one position from another in an NFL increasingly reliant on the passing game, especially for tight ends and receivers.
The arbitrator's decision hinged on the fact that Graham took most of his snaps within four yards of the offensive line, even when he was lined up wide of the formation. That should set a precedent for teams in future franchise tag battles with tight ends as well as wide receivers. Slot receivers in particular could find themselves with an entirely different position designation if teams hold to the arbitrator's "four-yard" ruling in the Graham case.