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The Saints were not close to a new deal with hybrid tight end Jimmy Graham prior to the start of the season and a failure to land one by February would surely end up with him getting the franchise tag, with no organization letting a talent like him hit the open market. With so many teams using multiple tight ends with varied job descriptions, and clubs attempting passes at a staggering rate, it seems inevitable at some point this distinction will be challenged.
And if Graham, on a record-setting pace for New Orleans this season, got the tag, expect the NFLPA and NFL to end up in arbitration over Graham’s true position. Though he plays tight end, Graham is at the vanguard of the growing trend of spread formations with tight ends in the slot or out wide, and not used nearly as much in the traditional role of engaging as a blocker at the point of attack. He is a size, speed and strength matchup nightmare for defensive backs on the outside, and his focal point in the New Orleans offense -- like anAntonio Gates or a Rob Gronkowski -- is catching balls.
Last year, tight end Jared Cook was pursuing a similar argument had the Titans franchise him -- they were not up for the fight and he ended up signing with the Rams in free agency -- but if Graham is tagged there is no doubt he would. Consider, if the 2014 salary cap is around $127M, then the tight end tag would be $6.7M, while the receiver tag would be $11.6. That's a staggering difference on a one-year deal.
NFLPA sources said such an argument would take into account the role Graham played in the offense -- his positional distinction inside the playbook -- like how often he was blocking and involved in the run game and what percentage of the time he was lined up outside the hash marks. In fact, many of the Saints running plays actually go away from Graham’s side of the field and the team, smartly, tries to protect him from dangerous blocks in that regard.
GMs and agents around the league would be watching very closely and there is no precedent here. A few years back, Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs was fighting the distinction he was a linebacker and not an outside linebacker, but sources said in the deal that was struck in his instance the sides agreed to split the difference between the two franchise tags. The language in that deal made it explicitly clear that it pertained only to Suggs and “was not precedent setting” as to any future issues that might come up about player positional designations vis-a vis the franchise tag.
Gronkowski is the highest paid tight end in the NFL at $9 million a season, well below what top receivers earn. Consider, in free agency last year alone, receiver Mike Wallace, who in no way impacts an offense to the degree a move tight end like Graham does, earned $12 million a year from Miami, becoming the fourth-highest paid receiver in the NFL. Receiver Percy Harvin received a deal worth $12.8M a year from Seattle following his trade there, and Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, the highest-paid receivers in the game, earn roughly $16-million a year. That's more than double what most elite tight ends earn.
Graham is in the final year of his rookie deal, making $1.32M this season.