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Jimmy Graham's grievance hearing a pivotal battle of semantics

Graham's grievance hearing to be classified as a wide receiver will have a far-reaching impact beyond his salary for next season. Here's why everyone should be paying attention.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Jimmy Graham's grievance hearing to be classified as a wide receiver for franchise tag purposes will begin next Tuesday. At stake is a little more than $5 million -- the difference between the franchise tag numbers for wideouts and tight ends. A lot of money means a lot of tension, and of course some anonymous pot shots through the media. Cue "NFL source," via ESPN:

"The union's position is a naked cash grab," the source said. "It ignores Mr. Graham's use as a traditional tight end on roughly 60 percent of the snaps where he lined up within 4 yards of the tackle. It also ignores the historical use of the tight end position.

"Since the days of Mike Ditka, coaches have split the tight end wide to gain information about the defensive set and gain a matchup advantage. According to the union's position, last year's All-Pro tight end was not a tight end and Mike Ditka was a wide receiver."

The funny thing about calling this grievance a "naked cash grab" is that Graham and the NFL Players Association probably wouldn't argue. The reason Graham wants to be classified as a wide receiver is because wideouts get paid exorbitantly more money. After catching 86 passes for 1,215 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdown receptions, it's understandable why Graham feels he is justly due $12.3 million, the average salary of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL.

The source also points out the percentage of snaps Graham has spent lined up within four yards of the tight end, setting the stage for a battle of semantics. Four yards is a rather wide swath to claim as the sole domain of tight ends. Slot receivers also occupy that space on occasion. As Mark Sandritter pointed out last March, Graham lined up as a slot receiver or out wide on 67 percent of the snaps he played. Sandritter also created a handy chart that I'm totally stealing.

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

Graham was one of 11 tight ends to line up more often split off the offensive line than in-line with it. The collective bargaining agreement states that 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, all 11 "tight ends" may have a strong case that they're actually wide receivers.

After catching a league-leading 16 touchdown receptions, it's understandable why Graham feels he is due the average salary of the highest-paid receivers.

Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, we may have to accept that the real answer is gray. Receivers and tight ends both line up in the slot on occasion, and we can also define tight ends by their blocking responsibilities. The problem for Graham, the New Orleans Saints and the NFL is that there is no TE/WR 'tweener tag at the moment. Graham needs to be designated as a tight end or a wide receiver, and accept a disparate salary as a result.

The outcome of the hearing goes beyond Graham's well-being, however. 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. On a larger scale, Graham could set a precedent for players in his position. Jermichael Finley, Jared Cook and Dennis Pitta all considered disputing their designation before being signed to long-term contracts in recent offseasons. Graham is the first player to bring the debate to a hearing.

With so many invested parties, it's no surprise that strong words are leaking out via unnamed sources. The result is easily the most interesting position battle not taking place on a practice field this offseason.