Jimmy Graham may run like a wide receiver, but an arbitration ruling has officially labeled him as a tight end.
Independent arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled on Wednesday that Graham would be classified as a tight end for contract purposes, USA Today reports. As a result, the New Orleans Saints, who applied the "franchise tag" to Graham this offseason, will pay him a salary contingent with that of the league’s top tight ends, rather than a higher total afforded to top wide receivers.
Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, teams have the option of applying a franchise tag to a player whose contract has expired, rather than negotiating a full extension. The Saints applied a “non-exclusive” franchise tag to Graham, which would require them to pay him an average of the top five salaries at his position, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, depending on which is greater.
The NFL’s top wide receivers are paid much higher salaries than its top tight ends; in 2014, the franchise tag for a wide receiver is $12.3 million, while that of a tight end is $7.05 million. Graham and his representatives argued that he lined up as a wide receiver for two-thirds of the Saints’ offensive snaps in 2013; among NFL tight ends, only Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons surpassed that total, according to ESPN. By comparison, the average NFL tight end split out wide just 28 percent of the time.
Burbank sided with the NFL’s Management Council, who posited that tight ends have always had the dual responsibility of running pass routes and blocking on the line of scrimmage, ESPN’s Mike Triplett reports. Graham and NFL Players Association representatives have up to 10 days to appeal the ruling in front of a three-member committee.
"The NFLPA will review with Jimmy Graham the decision from Arbitrator Stephen Burbank which permits the player to be designated as a tight end for Franchise Tag purposes. We will advise Graham of his options and carefully determine next steps in this matter," the NFLPA said in a statement. "We will also continue to assist Graham and his representation as necessary to help the player reach a fair long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints."
The ruling could have a profound effect on Graham’s long-term financial prospects. Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s highest-paid tight end, is in the midst of a $53 million contract, $16.5 million of which is guaranteed. By comparison, Calvin Johnson, the league’s highest-paid wide receiver, signed an eight-year, $132 million contract in 2012.
But statistics show that Graham can be just as productive, if not more so, than the league’s best traditional wide receiver. In 2013, he caught more passes (86) than Johnson (84) and more touchdowns (16) than any other player in the NFL.
The Saints will likely use this ruling as leverage in negotiations for a long-term contract with Graham. The two sides have until a July 15 deadline -- the league’s deadline for signing contracts with franchised players -- to reach a new agreement, ESPN notes.