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Jimmy Graham as Tight End: Not Because of His Twitter Bio, Where the Saints Listed Him, But Where He Took Snaps

Jimmy Graham and Earl Thomas

Jimmy Graham was ruled to be a tight end earlier today by arbitrator Stephen Burbank, and it has led to a lot of discussion. I have reviewed the actual ruling and wanted to clear up some things that I have seen.

Jimmy Graham was NOT ruled to be a tight end because of his Twitter Bio

You may have seen something like this today, with this just being one example from Ian Rapoport.

So let’s clear this up. Is there a reference to his Twitter bio? Yes. Was this the basis for the ruling? No, there is no indication of this.

Often, in decisions, there will be an intro that discusses several “facts” raised by the parties in their arguments, to lay the background. These are not necessarily the underlying reasons for the decision.

Mr. Graham refers to himself as a tight end in social media that he controls (Twitter and Facebook), and his agents do so as well. Exs. 31, 32, 48 and 49. The NFL listed Mr. Graham as a tight end in the material distributed to guide Pro Bowl balloting for the 2013 League Year by players and coaches, and he was elected as a tight end for 2013, as he had been for 2011. Exs. 5, 30, 32, and 46. In addition, other post-season honors that Mr. Graham has received (e.g., 2013 Associated Press NFL All-Pro; 2013 Professional Football Writers of America All-NFL; 2013 Sporting News NFL All-Pro) have been as a tight end. Exs. 27-29. 

As we will see, though, this was just setting the stage for the dispute, where the parties disagree about what a “tight end” is.

Graham Was Not Ruled a Tight End Because of Where the Team Drafted or Listed Him

Similarly, while the decision did discuss where he played in college and what position he was drafted, this was not dispositive. Did it play some role? Perhaps, but the ruling itself is justified independent of whether the team drafted him at tight end or not.

Graham Did Not Play 66% of His Snaps at Wide Receiver, He Played 66% of His Snaps Not Right Next to the Tackle

This case is about the distinction between a wide receiver and tight end for categorization purposes. Tight ends catch passes, and have since the position was recognized and Mike Ditka started winning awards. Wide Receivers catch passes.

Back in the day, yes, the tight end almost always lined up “tight” to the line, and the wide receivers (flankers and split end) lined up wide. Also, most teams played with a fullback and tailback in the backfield.

For many many years, though, tight ends have been put in motion or moved around in a formation, backs have gone in motion, three wide receiver sets have become common place, and some players have made their name as slot receivers almost exclusively.

ESPN personalities have been touting that Graham played wide receiver on 66% of his snaps. This is a value judgment, not fact. It is the same value judgment that the arbitrator was called to decide. When does a player become a tight end or wide receiver? What if he is lined up next to tackle, then goes in motion?

Jimmy Graham slot 1?

 

Similarly, this tweet, which says it is presented without comment, has plenty of it. It comments on a belief that being not next to the tackle makes one a wide receiver.

Graham played 66% of his snaps at wide receiver only if you accept that any time he was not immediately adjacent to an offensive tackle, he was a wide receiver.

The Issue is What Position He Played for the Most Plays

Here is what Burbank said . . . no longer focusing on Twitter profiles that make for good snark on Twitter.

The resolution of this dispute depends on interpretation of the language in Article 10 that prescribes the means to determine the positions to be used for the Franchise Player tender. At which of the two potentially applicable positions set forth in Section 7(a) – tight end or wide receiver – did Mr. Graham “participate[ ] in the most plays” during the 2013 League Year? As always when interpreting the CBA, my duty is to seek the meaning intended by the contracting parties, starting with the language used, and ending there if that language unambiguously provides an answer to the question of interpretation at hand.

Burbank does find many ambiguities in trying to find out where Graham really played and defining the difference between tight end and wide receiver. He notes the ambiguity created if we rely on traditional definitions:

To insist that a “tight end” be aligned “tight” to an offensive lineman and that a “wide receiver” be a “wide-out” – one of the four classifications used by the NFLPA’s expert (NFLPA Post-Hearing Brief at 13) — or that he be aligned “wide” — one of the four locations in a chart presented by the NFLPA to which the NFL stipulated (id. at 8) — would leave Mr. Graham in a categorical no man’s land for the majority of plays (from the snap) during the 2013 League Year for purposes of the Franchise Player tender.

The stipulated evidence showed that Graham was somewhere between next to the tackle, and out wide, on 51.7% of his snaps.

Graham Was Ruled a Tight End Because He Was Within Four Yards of a Lineman on Over Half the Snaps

Burbank went through trying to define a tight end. While he didn’t set a specific definition, he did find that a tight end involved more than just lining up immediately next to a tackle. He could still be a tight end if he was within arm’s length, or even in the slot, within 4 yards of the tackle, in a position where he could block.

In sum, I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or “arm’s-length” from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was aligned in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such lineman. Since Mr. Graham was so aligned for a majority of plays during the 2013 League Year, the NFLPA’s request for “a declaration that the correct tender for Mr. Graham is at the wide receiver position” is denied.

Graham in motion

As I detailed previously, this was going to be a close case. The arbitrator very well could have looked at pre-snap data as well to distinguish plays where Graham originally had his hand on the ground then went in motion to the slot. I have no personal opinion about the outcome, but only recognize that it was a close case factually, unless one believed that a player is a “wide receiver” if he is not right next to a tackle, in all cases. Burbank did not accept that view.

Because 54% of the snaps were within 4 yards, Burbank found he played tight end on more NFL snaps than any other position. We can disagree on whether it should be 3, 4, 5 yards, but there had to be a line drawn somewhere.

It wasn’t drawn because of what Graham posted on Twitter.

 

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