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Jimmy Graham and the Tight End Franchise Tag [UPDATE: Arbitrator Rules that Graham is a Tight End]

Divisional Playoffs - New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks

Today, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that Jimmy Graham is a tight end for franchise tag purposes, according to Ian Rapoport. This has been an ongoing dispute between the parties, as Graham tries to get a long term deal and the Saints have used the franchise tag. In February, I wrote about the issues involved, and what an arbitrator might be looking at. I also broke down a game from Graham to see where he lined up. 

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Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta would like you to know that they are wide receivers, not tight ends. This fight, as many are, is about money. The franchise tag number at wide receiver is much higher than tight end. For 2014, wide receiver is projected to be 11.5 to 11.7 million, while the number for tight ends is around 6.7 million.

One must suspend several levels of common knowledge and sense, require that Graham give back his all-pro award, and wonder if Dennis Pitta (career high 669 yards and turning 29) is more like Steve Breaston or Justin Gage if he wants to be considered a receiver, and then ponder the absurdity of that player seeking an $11 million tender based on the average salary of guys like Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson.

The NFL, though, is not about common sense, when it comes down to things like the franchise tag. It is its own internal game, where Pitta wants the number to be too high, just to discourage Baltimore from even considering it. Graham wants it higher as leverage as the two sides discuss a long term deal. It is a game that comes down to the language of the CBA. The CBA says this, in relation to franchise tags:

The Exclusive Franchise Tender shall be a one year NFL Player Contract for (A) the average of the five largest Salaries in Player Contracts for that League Year as of the end of the Restricted Free Agent Signing Period that League Year, as set forth in Article 9, Section 2(e), for players at the position (within the categories set forth in Section 7(a) below) at which he participated in the most plays during the prior League Year, or (B) the amount of the Required Tender under Subsec­ tion (a) (i) above, whichever is greater. [emphasis ours]

The Section 7(a) merely lists the positions that will be used for franchise tag designation, including wide receiver and tight end. In fact, the only place in the entire CBA where the phrase “tight end” appears is in that section, and there is no guidance in what it means to play the position of tight end on a given play.

The problem here is that the evolution of the game has expanded faster than the definitions. Modern strategy is bounded by some formational rules, but otherwise open to many variations. We could categorize offensive skill players as running backs, fullbacks, h-backs, receiving backs, blocking tight ends, hybrid or receiving tight ends, slot receivers, and wide receivers, and even that might not be enough for all circumstances. (What do you do with a player lined up several yards behind the line of scrimmage, closest to the linemen, in a tight bunch formation?)

According to this article, citing ESPN Stats & Info, Graham lined up as a tight end 33% of the time, “in the slot” 45% of the time, and as an outside receiver on 22% of his plays.

Earlier this year, I looked at Jimmy Graham’s game against the Bears to discuss how he influenced the game. It’s obvious that he’s used in a variety of ways, and that some those don’t even fit into the threesome of tight end, slot, and wide receiver. I also viewed the first half of the Sunday Night game against Carolina, and noted the variety of positions he played.

Let’s go through some of the issues that an arbitrator might have to resolve. How would you categorize this? He doesn’t have his hand on the ground, there is maybe a body width between him and the tackle, but he’s the outside receiver to that side.

Jimmy Graham slot 1?

What about this one? I suspect this was categorized as “slot”, but that’s even a hybrid of a slot and a traditional tight end positioning. He and the other tight end are only one body width away from the tackles, and there are outside receivers. He’s in a position to chip and help on the edge rusher. I think there’s a decent argument that if you have to choose between a designation of tight end versus wide receiver, this leans tight end.

Graham hybrid

Here’s another example of a large gray area. What position is someone playing if he lines up with his hand on the ground, then goes in motion? Is that something wide receivers do on a play, or tight ends? And are we engaging in some circular logic? Graham motioned out and was just outside the hash when the snap came. This is another I suspect was categorized as “in the slot”.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 10.31.30 AM

Here’s another example of being in motion, right before the snap on a touchdown pass to Colston. Graham ends up off the line of scrimmage, stacked behind the receiver–not really in the slot, not the outside receiver on the line of scrimmage, and moving out of your grandfather’s traditional tight end alignment.

Graham in motion

Then we can compare and contrast these two plays.

Jimmy Graham slot

Graham in TE position?

The only difference here is a few feet, and Graham with his hands on his knees. He’s off the line in both, the inside player in a trips formation.

These present some of the challenges that a decision-maker will have to resolve when trying to determine which position Graham was playing on each play, to determine which position he played for a majority of snaps in 2013.

Here’s where I categorized him for 24 plays in the first half of the Carolina home game.

Graham's formational diversity

If we consider tight to line at the snap as being a tight end, then yes, he was in this position 8 of 24 (33%) snaps, right in line with the season long numbers. If we consider originally aligning in a tight end position and still going in motion to be more indicative of playing tight end vs. wide receiver, then we get to 10 of 24 (41.7%) for that game. The biggest area, though, are those hybrid plays, where he is lined up within one body width of the tackle. They are likely categorized as “slot” but not all slot plays are the same. Count those as more representative of being a tight end, and Graham jumps to 16 of 24 for this game.

If I were judging, I would not find the data on plays in the slot dispositive. I would want to know how close he is to the tackle and whether he lined up in a traditional tight end position at the start of the play. The answer, then, is probably a lot closer than either Graham or the Saints want to risk. Hopefully, they can get a deal done, and Graham can go back to being the best of the new breed of tight ends.

 

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