The Saints slapped a franchise tag on Jimmy Graham, allowing them to keep him for one season without negotiating a new deal. But Graham has been designated a tight end; he believes he's a receiver. This is not an academic point: there is more than $5 million at stake.
The tag works this way: A franchise player's salary is prescribed as the average of the five-highest paid players at that position the previous season. Receivers naturally make more than tight ends. The average of the five highest-paid WRs last year was $12.312 million. For the top TEs, it was $7.035 million. Graham wants to be considered a receiver to get the significantly higher payout.
The position designation didn't come from the Saints, who would obviously tag him as a punter if they could. Graham is a tight end according to the NFL Management Council, who sets these designations. But Graham can fight this. The NFLPA is expected to file a grievance on his behalf as early as today, at which point his case will be heard by an arbitrator, and then, perhaps, an appeals panel.
So, is Jimmy Graham a tight end or a receiver?
Graham is one of the NFL's new breed of tight ends, along with the likes of Rob Gronkowski, who are on the field almost exclusively for their pass-catching abilities. He is not skilled as a run blocker and is very rarely called upon to do it. Graham led the NFL in touchdown catches, was 13th in receptions, and 15th in receiving yards.
But the NFL Management Council doesn't take outcomes into account. It decides based on the wording of the CBA: "the position at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year." This seems like it would point to Graham, who lined up nearly two-thirds of time in the slot or wide, being classified as a receiver.
It's not so simple. The Saints will argue that Graham spent more than a third of his plays lined up next to the tackle. While plenty of TEs occasionally line up in traditional receiver positions (though not nearly as frequently as Graham), no wide receiver ever lines up next to the tackle.
There's no hard answer to the question of Jimmy Graham's position. (His fantasy owners, getting WR production out of the TE slot, are perpetually thankful that he's at least nominally a tight end. Those who don't own him likely think it's bullshit.) In the short term, it may not matter—Graham and the Saints may very well work out a new deal and avoid using the franchise tag, and the concomitant arbitration headache. But in the long run, the very fact that there's a debate means the NFL's position system isn't so cut-and-dried anymore, and maybe it's time to start making official allowances for pass-catching TEs and hybrid defenders.