Arbitrator Rules Jimmy Graham A Tight End, Costing Him $5.3 Million

Unable to negotiate a deal, the Saints slapped Jimmy Graham with a franchise tag as a tight end. Graham disagreed, declaring himself a receiver, in order that he be paid like one. The dispute went to arbitration, and today arbitrator Stephen Burbank came down on the Saints' side.

The difference is significant. A franchise tag pays a player the average of the five highest-paid players at that position, and WRs—especially the top tier—are paid better than their TE counterparts. A ruling favorable to Graham would have seen him make $12.312 million this season; instead, he'll make $7.035 million.

For practical purposes, you can probably count on the Saints and Graham agreeing to a contract within the next couple of weeks and avoiding the franchise tag. But it's a really interesting discussion, with the potential to set precedent: How do you actually decide what position someone plays?

The arbitrator's decision isn't public, but dribs and drabs of Burbank's reasoning have come out. (Ian Rapaport and Albert Breer are your best sources.) Among Burbank's justifications:

  • Graham attends TE position meetings.
  • Graham was drafted by the Saints as a TE.
  • Graham lists himself as a TE in his Twitter bio. (Yes, the Saints argued this.) Burbank, via Rapaport: "Mr. Graham refers to himself as a tight end in social media that he controls and his agents do so as well."
  • Graham lined up within four yards of the offensive line on a majority of his snaps last season.

That last one seems to be key. With most positions, there's no question because of what they actually do on a play. But with the emergence of pass-catching tight ends who eschew run-blocking (though few eschew it as hard as Graham), we are forced to rely on how and where they're deployed. According to ESPN Stats & Info,

Graham lined up 291 times this year as an in-line tight end (33 percent). He lined up 395 times in the slot (45 percent). And he lined up 191 times out wide (22 percent). Pro Football Focus had almost the exact same numbers (290, 396 and 191).

But Burbank appears to have rejected the idea that formation by itself determines position. "The evidence also supports findings that, like TEs, WRs and RBs often line up in the slot," he wrote.

So where do you draw the line? Four yards, apparently—which as Breer notes, could have major implications for where teams line up their own hybrid TEs.

The NFLPA, which filed the grievance on behalf of Graham, released a statement saying it's considering its next steps, which could include an appeal. Whatever happens, it needs to happen quickly—the deadline for Graham and the Saints to sign a long-term deal and avoid using the franchise tag is July 15.