Jimmy Graham represents one of the more intriguing free-agents-to-be this offseason, and going up against a wide receiver class headlined by Eric Decker, Julian Edelman, and Anquan Boldin, you could make the case that Graham will be the top receiving option on the market. Still, the odds of Graham leaving New Orleans are virtually nil. Even if the Saints and their All-Pro tight end can’t reach a long-term agreement, the team figures to slap the franchise tag on him to ensure that he remains the top target in Drew Brees‘ arsenal.
If and when Graham receives that franchise tag though, it will spark a debate on what position he really plays. While he’s long been considered a tight end, the 27-year-old played significantly more snaps in 2013 split out as a receiver, rather than tight to the tackle. The positional debate would have a major impact on Graham’s potential earnings, since the franchise tag for tight ends will be in the neighborhood of $6.7MM, compared to $11.5MM for wide receivers.
In his MMQB column today, Peter King writes that the entire discussion is “ludicrous,” since every team in the league uses formations where tight ends are split out as receivers, but as Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk points out, the NFL CBA dictates that a player be franchised at the position “at which [he] participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.” Considering Graham a tight end would be in the Saints’ best interests, since it would give the team nearly $5MM in cap flexibility to spend elsewhere. But it’s hard to argue that Graham, who has averaged 90 catches, 1,169 yards, and 12 TDs over the last three seasons and lined up so frequently as a receiver, should see his salary limited by a somewhat arbitrary designation.
A long-term deal between Graham and the Saints would end the discussion, or at least postpone it until a similar player reached free agency. But suppose New Orleans uses the franchise tag, and an arbitrator is tasked with determining Graham’s position. Would you argue that he should be viewed as a tight end or a receiver?