Jimmy Graham, Saints prepare for battle over franchise tag

Chris Graythen

The Saints tagged Jimmy Graham, so now what? SB Nation's GIF Tournament V

The New Orleans Saints officially placed the franchise tag on tight end Jimmy Graham. That was the easy part. Now comes a process that amounts to a battle for about $5 million. The impact will be felt well beyond Graham's bank account, however. The outcome will alter the future of the Saints' roster and possibly lead to a change to the current structure of the franchise tag and NFL free agency.

Graham, a pending free agent, was designated as the Saints' franchise player. Graham is a tight end and was listed as a tight end during the franchise tag process by the NFL Management Council, which determines which tender each player should receive. As a franchise tight end, Graham received a tender of $7.035 million. Easy enough, right? Wrong.

The problem is, while listed as a tight end, Graham plays the role of a wide receiver more often than he plays the role of a traditional tight end. If the franchise tender values for tight ends and wide receivers were similar, this situation wouldn't exist, but the franchise tender for a wide receiver is worth $12.315 million, or $5.28 million more than for a tight end. That is a significant amount of money, even in the NFL world, and it's money Graham believes he deserves.

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Graham's representatives and the NFL Players' Association are expected to file a grievance to dispute the Graham's designation as a tight end. That process will ultimately be decided by a system arbitrator, if it gets that far. This issue could go away easily if the two sides agree to a long-term deal, but a deal doesn't appear to be on the horizon.

As with the impending grievance battle, the divide between the two sides reportedly stems from whether Graham should be paid like a top tight end or a top wide receiver. According to the Times-Picayune, New Orleans is willing to make Graham the highest-paid tight end in the league (Rob Gronkowski currently holds that title with a deal averaging $9 million per season.) Graham, however, wants to be paid like one of the top wide receivers, reportedly seeking a deal in the range of $12 million per season.

Is he a TE or a WR?

That is the $5.28 million dollar question. In the modern day NFL, the traditional in-line blocking tight end is a minority. Now, many teams are using tight ends as a receiving mismatch. They line up on the line at times, but also operate out of the slot and split out wide. Graham spent most of this past season lined up off the line. ESPN Stats & Information had the complete breakdown:

In-Line Slot/Split Out
Snaps 291 586
Targets 29 109
Receptions 18 68
Yards 377 838
Touchdowns 4 12

By those snap counts, Graham spent 67 percent of his snaps last season either in the slot or split out wide. That's not abnormal -- Graham was one of 11 tight ends to line up off the line more often than on it, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those numbers could, however, have a big impact on whether Graham is ultimately tendered as a tight end or a wide receiver. The collective bargaining agreement is simple when it comes to the designations, saying that players will be tendered at the position at which "the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year."

By the letter of the law, the answer is easy: Graham is a wide receiver.

By the letter of the law, the answer is easy: Graham is a wide receiver. An arbitrator, however, will look at more than just snap counts. Just because Graham lined up off the line, doesn't mean he wasn't still playing the role of a tight end. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 20 tight ends lined up in the slot or out wide on at least 40 percent of their snaps. An arbitrator may be forced to redefine the role of a tight end. At what point does a player lining up off the line shift being from a tight end to a wide receiver?

Adding to the issue, most of Graham's snaps away from the line came in the slot. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Graham lined up in the slot 395 times, in-line 291 times and out wide 191 times. Is lining up in the slot an accepted practice of a tight end? In that case Graham only played the role of a receiver on 22 percent of his snaps.

A TE/WR tweener tag?

Graham isn't the first player to challenge his franchise tender designation. In 2008, Terrell Suggs was tendered by the Baltimore Ravens as a linebacker instead of as a defensive end. The difference between the two tenders was roughly $800,000, and the two sides, along with the NFL and the NFLPA, agreed to a DE/OLB tweener tender worth $8.5 million.

Graham may not ultimately win his claim to be a wide receiver, but he could break the mold for a traditional tight end. If the two sides split the difference, a WR/TE tweener tag would be worth roughly $9.5 million.

Although Graham's situation has gained more attention, he isn't the first "tight end" to have an issue with not being tagged as a wide receiver. Jermichael Finley and the Green Bay Packers were headed for the same dispute in 2011, but the two sides were able to agree on a two-year contract extension. There were reports Jared Cook was planning to challenge the system last year, but the Tennessee Titans decided not to tag him and let him hit free agency. Dennis Pitta was reportedly planning to dispute the tender this season before he and the Baltimore Ravens agreed on a new contract.

Graham isn't the first to take issue, but he could be the first to need an arbitrator's ruling.

Getting paid like the best

While there is a lot of uncertainty in the situation, one thing is for sure: Graham is going to be paid very well next season, whether he plays the year on a franchise tender or signs a long-term deal. The Saints are reportedly offering more than $9 million per season while Graham is asking for $12 million a season. Here is a look at how those deals would compare to the five highest-paid tight ends and wide receivers:

Note: Salary numbers via OverTheCap.com.

Player Position Average Annual Salary
Calvin Johnson WR $16.2 million
Larry Fitzgerald WR $16.1 million
Percy Harvin WR $12.8 million
Mike Wallace WR $12 million
Dwayne Bowe WR $11.2 million
Rob Gronkowski TE $9 million
Jason Witten TE $7.4 million
Vernon Davis TE $7.4 million
Antonio Gates TE $7.2 million
Jared Cook TE $7 million

There is a significant difference between the top contracts for wide receivers and tight ends. If Graham signed a deal worth an average of $9.5 million per season, he'd be the highest-paid tight end by a large margin, but only the 10th highest-paid wide receiver.

What should the Saints do?

The Saints aren't acting out of principal, they are acting out of necessity. They surely realize that Graham is a big weapon, their salary cap situation is keeping them from soothing Graham. With Graham counting $7 million against the books, the Saints have roughly $1.5 million in salary cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. That's after releasing several veterans to create space.

If Graham is designated as a wide receiver the Saints may not be able to afford him without taking major roster hits.

By giving Graham a long-term deal, the Saints could structure the contract in a way that reduces his 2014 cap number, but they may still need to create additional room by releasing other players. If Graham is designated as a wide receiver and the two sides are unable to agree to a long-term deal, the Saints may not be able to afford him without taking major roster hits. Lance Moore, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are all candidates to be released, based on their 2014 cap numbers.

An extra $5.28 million puts the Saints roughly $3.5 million over the salary cap. Still needing to sign rookies, New Orleans would likely have to part ways with Thomas ($2.9 million in savings), Sproles ($3.5 million in savings) and/or Moore ($2.5 million in savings). Those moves would put New Orleans on the right side of the cap, but the Saints would be non-factors in free agency. New Orleans could attempt to restructure several deals, although that typically creates long-term issues.

The predicament brings up the question:

Can the Saints afford Jimmy Graham?

Graham is one of the elite players at his position (whatever it is). NFL teams shy away from letting elite talent get away, regardless of price. That's good for business, but you have to be able to afford that price without destroying the rest of the roster. Signing Graham isn't only about bringing him back on the richest tight end contract in NFL history, it's about setting up the roster to navigate the salary cap and win games this year and next.

The Saints are already hamstrung against the salary cap by Drew Brees' contract. Adding a mega deal for Graham could eat up nearly a quarter of the team's cap space. New Orleans may be able to handle that for a season or two, but at some point it is going to have difficulty filling out a competitive roster.

Now what?

The standoff between Graham and the Saints isn't likely to be resolved anytime soon. The grievance process could take weeks. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said he's never been through this process before, but beyond agreeing on a new deal there isn't much the Saints can do except wait.

"These negotiations are always a process, and Jimmy's been a great player for us for the last four years," Loomis said, via Pro Football Talk. "Look, I had hoped and I'm sure he had hoped we'd come to some conclusion on a longer-term deal before this. But we haven't yet, and hopefully we will. We'll just let it play out, and I'm sure we'll get something resolved."

The key date to monitor is July 15. That is the last day a franchised player and his team can sign a long-term deal. If the Saints and Graham don't have a deal in place by then, he will play the 2014 season under whatever franchise tender an arbitrator decides then hit free agency again next season. Unless, of course, the Saints tag him again, in which case the entire process starts all over.

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