Jimmy Graham faces franchise tag, but as TE or WR?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints can't afford to lose Jimmy Graham in free agency and can't afford to give him a new contract either, setting up an offseason duel between the team and Graham about his position.

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham led the NFL in touchdown receptions during the 2013 season, racking up 16 to go with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards. He led the Saints in every receiving category during his All-Pro campaign and is sure to receive compensation to match his production...eventually.

For now, the cash-strapped Saints may be forced to slap Graham with the franchise tag to insure that the play-making pass catcher remains in New Orleans for at least one more season.

While players typically avoid the franchise tag, the case of Graham is a little different as the former-first round pick will have a strong case to be labelled as a receiver, as ProFootballTalk details. With such a huge role in the team's pass offense, Graham could argue that he is used more as a wide receiver than a tight end and thus deserves the contract numbers a receiver is given when he is designated with the franchise tag.

The NFL's collective bargaining agreement designates "that the tender will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays."

It's no small difference either, as tight ends received a one-year deal worth $6.07 million in 2013 for the franchise tag, while franchised wide receivers earned a one-year, $10.54 million deal.

Graham, 27, would obviously aim for the extra $4.5 million that comes with the label of wide receiver, but that's could have a huge impact on the Saints, who are projected to be $17 million over the cap in 2014. The expected release of defensive end Will Smith would cut over $11 million out of that deficit, but any savings the Saints can make will be welcomed and $4.5 million more to Graham is significant.

The Saints aren't the first to have this fight either, as Jared Cook hoped to be labelled as a wide receiver by the Tennessee Titans in 2013 in the event that he was given the franchise tag, although he wasn't and eventually left to join the St. Louis Rams in free agency.

Jermichael Finley also had the same disagreement with the Green Bay Packers in 2012 before signing a two-year, $14 million deal before the deadline for the franchise tag to be applied, setting up the stage for Graham to be the first time when a decision has to be made.

Considering the tight ends set to hit free agency, Graham is also likely to receive a huge deal in the event that the Saints don't make a move to keep him in New Orleans, as Finley, Dustin Keller, Brandon Pettigrew and Dennis Pitta round out the biggest names on the list of tight ends with expiring contracts.

Graham has racked up 41 touchdowns in four seasons with the Saints, which ranks fourth in franchise history.

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