Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Jul 2014

Arbitration Rules Jimmy Graham a Tight End

NFL.com's Ian Rappaport is reporting that arbitrator Stephen Burbank has ruled in favor of the New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham will be paid the franchise tender at the tight end position, not wide receiver.

Here's a problem with the whole "Jimmy Graham is a wide receiver" thing. At first, I agreed with him. He's split out wide so often, in the slot so often, that he really is more of a wide receiver. Then I realized: this is how ALL of the best tight ends are used in today's NFL. They all go into the slot all the time. In fact, by our count, Graham wasn't even in a wide receiver position more than any other tight end last season. Tony Gonzalez was.

If anything, the positions should be changed to "tight end/slot receiver" and "wide receiver," because we know guys like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman aren't getting paid on the open market what Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson would be paid. They're getting paid... more like what Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are going to be paid.

We probably missed a few plays, but here are our leaderboards from charting last year for those curious.

SPLIT WIDE

Jimmy Graham, NO: 150
Tony Gonzalez, ATL: 80
Jared Cook, STL: 71
Andrew Quarless, GB: 64
Vernon Davis, SF: 57
Zach Ertz, PHI: 52
Tyler Eifert, CIN: 51
Greg Olsen, CAR: 41
Julius Thomas, DEN: 41
Luke Willson, SEA: 40

SPLIT WIDE OR IN THE SLOT

Tony Gonzalez, ATL: 516
Jimmy Graham, NO: 449
Antonio Gates, SD: 325
Charles Clay, MIA: 281
Jared Cook, STL: 280
Greg Olsen, CAR:279
Jason Witten, DAL: 277
Jordan Cameron, CLE: 265
Vernon Davis, SF: 224
Martellus Bennett, CHI: 222

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 02 Jul 2014

59 comments, Last at 08 Jul 2014, 8:34pm by theslothook

Comments

1
by Perfundle :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 1:29pm

That should be Martellus Bennett for Chicago, not his brother.

4
by Aaron Schatz :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 1:45pm

Oops.

2
by Noah of Arkadia :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 1:33pm

Common sense prevails. As others, at first I was dubious, but -and I don't remember who made this argument- either Graham is a TE or the TE position doesn't exist. WRs, after all, never line up inside in a three-point stance.

------
Who, me?

3
by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 1:42pm

Granted, I don't remember the last time I saw Calvin Johnson put a hand on the turf. But there are a lot of guys who line up in a 2-point stance off the offensive tackle's hip and throw blocks.

18
by tuluse :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 7:27pm

If Graham is a wide recevier then so was Art Monk.

Also, of course traditional tight ends still exist. Just as full backs do. Hyperbole that something becoming means it doesn't exist doesn't help anything.

19
by theslothook :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 7:52pm

I would argue the traditional tight end and traditional fullback have been reduced to situational role players(aside from a few specific teams). Their snaps have gone to third receivers and slot corners.

AS snap evidenced has shown, base defense isn't even played that much anymore. Because of no huddle and scheme design, defenses are essentially forced into a new kind of nickle base with the dime and hybrid fronts as the new sub. The years of the traditional 4 down linemen three linebackers are now situational fronts.

27
by tuluse :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 4:15pm

I would agree with you. So it doesn't make sense to have a player not in that role franchised tagged as one.

28
by theslothook :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 5:12pm

Yup, but that's why I highlighted the real problem being the franchise tag itself.

In fact, I think the players themselves are getting screwed via contracts as well. Rookie contracts run 4 years, with the first rounders getting a non negotiable 5th option. Since the rookie wage scale went into effect, this has allowed teams yet another method to low ball and get underpaid talent for much longer.

This of course all stemmed from the irritation the players and teams felt that the first overall picks were being way overpaid. Very fair criticism, but they've gone way too far in the opposite direction.

Here's my solution, keep the rookie wage scale in place, but make ALL rookie contracts at a length of three years. After three years, they should be able to hit at least restricted free agency if not unrestricted. This again would lead to much better parity for the league and much more equity to the players themselves. It was also help running backs get paid well before they are broken down.

20
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 8:33pm

Um, I think you mean to say "If Graham is a wide recevier then so was Shannon Sharpe." Art Monk was listed as a WR throughout his career, although he probably has the strongest case for being relabeled as a TE out of any WR in history. See http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=1888

21
by dbostedo :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 10:13pm

I think he actually meant that if Graham is a WR, the Monk was a TE.

23
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 11:17pm

Well that makes more sense, but as I noted there's actually a pretty good case that Monk should be viewed as a TE. Then again, apparently Jordan Cameron has changed his position designation to "pass catcher" so maybe that's an apt description of both Jimmy Graham and Art Monk.

26
by tuluse :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 4:14pm

I meant if Graham is a tight end actually. He spends about as much time lined up as one as Monk did.

5
by theslothook :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 2:12pm

The real story behind all this is that this wouldn't even be a discussion were it not for the franchise tag. In all honesty, the franchise tag makes no sense from the players' standpoint and feels almost criminal. They get a 1 year deal in a sport that has a notoriously high risk level for injury. Furthermore, it really only benefits the good teams, who can keep star players from hitting the open market and then use that as leverage to sign them to a cheaper long term deal, whereas, had they hit the open market, the bad teams could have pried them away - leveling the talent disparity.

6
by Perfundle :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 2:40pm

I don't think it only benefits the good teams. Last year alone saw Albert, Starks and Byrd being tagged by three bad or mediocre teams. Anyway, the players themselves agreed to lower the franchise tag amount in exchange for eliminating the RFA super-tender. What is true is that the franchise tag only affects the great players, and so lowering the amount levels the salary disparity.

9
by RickD :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 3:25pm

"What is true is that the franchise tag only affects the great players"

I wouldn't say that. The Pats used the franchise tag on their kicker a couple times.

You could argue that he's a great kicker, but still, Adam Vinatieri is only a kicker.

(checks list)

Hey, the Jets have used the tag this season on Nick Folk!

The franchise tag is the anti-lottery, a way for the employer to designate one arbitrary player as undeserving of reaping the rewards of the free market. It's not the kind of contract that would ever be allowed in an ordinarily line of business. I don't think that even a union can arbitrarily deny rights to random individuals like that.

11
by Perfundle :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 4:27pm

True. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that great players are the ones most negatively impacted by issues with the franchise tag.

However, comparing the NFL to a free market is just silly when you have the salary cap and draft; you can't get more anti-free market than that.

12
by theslothook :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 4:44pm

It stands to reason they would get more money in a pseudo free market than a situation where you can only negotiate with one team.

17
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 7:20pm

Yes, the franchise tag makes no sense, but it affects 32 players at most (not every team uses the tag each year), and it's clearly apparent that the NFLPA has bigger fish to fry than the interests of 32 of the highest-paid players.

The flip side is that Graham entered the league as a TE voluntarily, probably because he expected a higher draft rating at that position. Sometimes you have to sleep in the bed you made.

7
by theslothook :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 2:49pm

Yes, bad teams also benefit, but they are also hurt overall. If we eliminated the franchise tag, then the players gain bargaining power and likely will demand a higher cap figure. Good teams with good players will not be able to pay them their market wage and the bad teams, who are talent poor, can make up the gap this way. The players negotiated it, but like you said, they probably did so as a concession to eliminate and even worse contract rule. It just doesn't help the players at all.

10
by RickD :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 3:30pm

If the franchise tag were eliminated while the salary cap were kept in place, players' salaries would reflect their relative ability levels more closely. The argument made for the franchise tag was that it would allow most teams to retain their best players. But in practice that's not what's happened. The tag is just a threat that GM's use against agents to pit players against each other. Elite players who are tagged have often held out, demanding a higher contract or a release.

8
by Jerry :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 3:17pm

"Then I realized: this is how ALL of the best tight ends are used in today's NFL."

The best receiving tight ends, maybe. Guys like Heath Miller are still expected to block for the running game. How many snaps do TEs take in a traditional tight end position?

13
by MJK :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 4:56pm

Of course, the next logical step is that some team with a star slot receiver (think Wes Welker a couple of years ago, for example) who never lines up wide will try to franchise him as a TE to save a few dollars.

It would get really ridiculous if offensive play structuring were influenced by this...if a team has a good, big WR nearing the end of his contract, they could design the majority of their plays when he's on the field where he lines up in the slot rather than split wide.

14
by theslothook :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 5:27pm

How about the attack outside linebacker role? Will they franchise Aldon and Von, who are both technically pass rushers, as linebackers who are paid significantly less.

15
by Perfundle :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 6:36pm

I had thought about this, but I can't see teams doing it. If a team had been using that good WR split wide most of the time, then it was because he provided the most value to the team there; not only would moving him to the slot adversely affect his own play, but you're also splitting a worse receiver (either the original slot receiver or a backup outside receiver) out wide. Teams aren't going to sabotage their offense just to save a few million dollars (well, Carolina, maybe...). Graham was different because the team had always used him the same way.

16
by theslothook :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 7:03pm

Carolina panthers are being total geniuses with this move imo.

32
by Sophandros :: Fri, 07/04/2014 - 7:37pm

The league office makes the designation, not the team. The team only applies the tag.

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Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

38
by tuluse :: Sat, 07/05/2014 - 4:57pm

I don't think that's true unless there is a dispute of some kind (like this case).

41
by Sophandros :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 8:59am

No, it's true. The team applies the tag, and the league assigns the value.

http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/02/28/10-things-to-know-about-...

"Despite reports suggesting that the Saints would be tagging Graham as a tight end, the Saints simply apply the tag generically. The NFL Management Council will determine whether to apply the $7.035 million tight end franchise tender or the far more lucrative $12.315 million receiver franchise tender."

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Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

44
by tuluse :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 11:04am

Ok, I did not know that. Thanks.

22
by Dired :: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 11:17pm

This may be comically-naive, but in the modern game, isn't a tight end a lot closer in terms of dollar value to a receiver? WRS seem like a good candidate for fungibility after RBs and LBs; a stud is a stud, but a 3rd WR seems really easy to replace?

25
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 1:18pm

It depends. Lately there have been several TEs that are more like big WRs. However, the average high-5 pay (which is what I believe the Franchise Tag pays) should move closer to top WR pay as the position evolves.

The other question is should there just be a generic pass catcher position? Offensive linemen are considered a group even though there is a big difference in salary between the top LT (Joe Thomas, $11.5M, numbers from spotrac - I don't believe this includes bonus money) and the top RT (Gosder Cherilus, $7M). Top linemen rarely change positions even though Maurkice Pouncey ($8.77M at C) could probably play any OL position in a pinch. I'm sure some will argue that RBs and FBs also catch passes, but their primary duties are to run and/or block and they also line up in the backfield (with a few exceptions).

BTW, here are all the franchise numbers (from NFL.com):
Quarterback: $16.192 million
Running back: $9.54 million
Wide receiver: $12.312 million
Tight end: $7.035 million
Offensive lineman: $11.654 million
Defensive end: $13.116 million
Defensive tackle: $9.654 million
Linebacker: $11.455 million
Cornerback: $11.834 million
Safety: $8.433 million
Kicker/punter: $3.556 million

24
by Right Ups :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 12:57pm

There was a rumor a few years ago that the Rams were looking into franchising Danny Amendola as a Tight End because the frequency of him lining up tight the formation. Of course at the time it was laughed off, I wouldn't put it passed some team from trying something like that in the future.

It's funny because players(/agents) are going to start to be aware of where they are lining up in formations and its going to become a deal. Player X is unhappy after his team wins 35-21 and he catches 8 passes for 130 yards, because he was lined up next to a lineman instead of split wide.

29
by BDC :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 6:34pm

I expect that we will start to say agents start having it written into contracts for hybrid players. It wouldn't solve everything but would clear up most of these questions, if it says right in the player's contract something like, "the team will consider the player a TE or WR or whatever for purposes of the franchise tag".

30
by MC2 :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 9:51pm

Graham's argument was disingenuous. He clearly considers himself a TE, and so does everyone else. Otherwise, why didn't he or any of his supporters complain when he was named All-Pro as a TE?

31
by Jerry :: Thu, 07/03/2014 - 11:07pm

There are more than five million reasons.

33
by Sophandros :: Fri, 07/04/2014 - 7:40pm

He was most often covered by linebackers and safeties, as TEs are.

Defenses viewed him as a TE, so he is a TE.

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Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

37
by tuluse :: Sat, 07/05/2014 - 4:56pm

Wes Welker was also often often covered by linebackers and safeties.

39
by MC2 :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 2:22am

True, but Welker was never named to the Pro Bowl or the All-Pro teams as a TE, and if he had been, I'm sure there would have been a lot of controversy, whereas no one so much as batted an eye when Graham was repeatedly recognized by the league as a TE.

40
by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 6:18am

I batted eye, this "tight end" took all pro spot awAy from more deserving reAl tight end v. Davis. Complained about it here and other internet places

49
by MC2 :: Mon, 07/07/2014 - 2:24am

My apologies, RJ. As usual, you are the exception to the rule.

50
by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 07/07/2014 - 5:17am

No need to apologize. Cannot find anything here. So meand musr have written about V. Davis vs J. Graham on twittr or something.

52
by theslothook :: Mon, 07/07/2014 - 7:44pm

What makes V. Davis more valuable than Graham? I submit V.Davis is a better blocker than Graham and plays in a more run oriented offense, but even still, V.Davis was never the center of the 49er offense the way Gonzo, Gates, Gronk, and Graham have been.

53
by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 07/07/2014 - 10:05pm

Never wrote v. Davis center of offense, all said was Davis was real vest TE 2013.,v Davis real tight end. Grham pseudo TE. V. Davis total package TE. Garham pass a catcher,,not much of blocker., want real TE on my all pro tema
Not running a speard offense with it

54
by theslothook :: Tue, 07/08/2014 - 12:15am

Fair enough.

55
by Insancipitory :: Tue, 07/08/2014 - 1:29am

Ummm didn't Davis have like 62% of the 9ers receiving TDs? And Graham accounted for something like 16/40?

56
by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 07/08/2014 - 8:11am

Catching most touchdowns means a guy is center of offense?

Can find examples where tem's leading receiver did nto lead in touchdowns.

57
by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 07/08/2014 - 8:12am

Feel like there are people arguing stuff that I nver wrote or implied

58
by Insancipitory :: Tue, 07/08/2014 - 10:41am

More than 50%, yeah probably that guy is one of the primary focal points.

For my part, I'll take points over yards any day. Occasionally, there will be the extreme Calvin "to the five" Johnson outliers, but they're the outliers. We could also use Football Perspectives game scripts or true receiving yards to look at the real yards contribution of Davis as compared to Graham and see how that shakes out too. Given how much time the 9ers just spent standing on the neck of their vanquished opponents as opposed to playing to win I suspect he acquits himself quite well. Even FO has Davis as #3 by DVOA, and Graham #12.

It wasn't about what you said, it's about someone else saying Davis doesn't compare favorably to Graham. That's patently ridiculous and completely unsupported by any numbers but yards gained on nearly 2x as many targets for Graham, on a team that passed 64% more than the 9ers. If one of the Davis-Graham pair doesn't measure up, it's Graham. Pretty convincingly to my eye. That's before we even begin to consider value as a blocker.

59
by theslothook :: Tue, 07/08/2014 - 8:34pm

I feel like your essentially punishing Graham because his teams throw a ton. WE know that Graham had more targets and more yards and tds than VD despite playing fewer snaps, but then we know that NO tends to pass far more than SF. Even still, I feel it's a bit unfair to just broadly brush that aside because of context.

Personally, I've never felt like VD was the same kind of tight end receiver that the 4 I mentioned were. He's a speed deep threat that is very unique to tight ends, but at this point, I feel comfortable saying Graham is a better receiving threat.

And yes, not really related to what RJ said.

42
by Sophandros :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 9:00am

Way to ignore the key word in my statement: MOST.

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Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

45
by tuluse :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 11:07am

If you want to play this game, I'm sure I can find a slot receiver who mostly covered by linebackers and safeties. Probably not a very good one, but I'm sure it's happened.

48
by Sophandros :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 2:32pm

The point is that defenses treat him as a tight end more often than they treat him as a WR.

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Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

43
by dryheat :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 9:59am

I agree. He was listed at TE in college, in the draft, on the Saints roster, most likely when he introduced himself at public events, etc.

He was chasing records for most xxx by a tight end in NFL history last year. I would have loved to see him break Gronkowski's TE TD record last season, and see what effect it would've had on this Tag disagreement. I can see the Management Committee now - You can have the record or the higher tag number, Jimmy, what will it be?

46
by tuluse :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 11:08am

I find it hard to believe many players would have a hard time answering that question.

47
by dryheat :: Sun, 07/06/2014 - 2:14pm

Me too. I expect he'd rather have the record over a one-year Cap figure that he probably won't play for.

34
by Sophandros :: Fri, 07/04/2014 - 7:45pm

If I were Mickey Loomis, I'd craft a deal like this:

5 years, 45 million, including a 20 million signing bonus. Annual salaries of 7, 5, 5, 4, and 4 million.

Annual cap hits of 11, 9, 9, 8, and 8.

Jimmy gets 20 million in cash up front and earns 17 million in salary for the first three years, and if Drew retires his deal is easier to trade in years 4 and 5.

He'd earn the bulk of his money early (unlike the Gronk deal) and have freedom to move if/when Drew leaves.

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Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

35
by Theo :: Sat, 07/05/2014 - 10:36am

After all this, I still don't know what makes a player a tight end and what doesn't.

36
by MJK :: Sat, 07/05/2014 - 4:45pm

I know a lot of players don't like the tag, but I don't see owners giving it up. Here's an idea for a compromise, that would address Graham's grievance as well--instead of the tag being worth the average of the top 5 salaries at a position, make it worth the average of the top 10 salaries. Period. I suspect it would end up being the average of the top 8 or so paid QB's, with maybe a top CB, WR, or DE thrown in.

This would make the tag much harder for teams to use...probably on the order of $13M or so this year...and eliminate this nonsense about TE/slot WR, or DE/OLB. Probably it would only ever get used on QB's, DE's, CB's, and WR's. But if teams absolutely had to lock a player in and cost wasn't an object, they would still have the tool in their toolbox.

51
by Biebs :: Mon, 07/07/2014 - 3:39pm

I'm not sure I understand this comment. He wasn't a WR in the draft, he was a TE in college, and certainly no NFL team considered him a WR. Also, it implies that a mid-round draft pick had a lot more say in the process than he really does.

ETA: Whoops, this was a reply to comment 17

Also, As people have implied above, It's hard to gauge what Graham's value would be at WR, he may have made the pro bowl as a 3rd WR or backup, but I don't think he'd be an All-Pro at WR. Furthermore, while he's helping himself (and arguably other TEs) he's also screwing other TEs in the process. The next generation of TEs who line up more often in the Tight End position (Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron) end up getting a lower franchise value if Graham becomes a WR in value.