In the never-ending power struggle between millionaires and billionaires, the most recent NFL battleground is the legal definition of what position Jimmy Graham plays. We know why it matters, but why should it?
(Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Here are the league leaders in receptions since 2011:
Next, here are the league leaders in reception yardage:
And last, the league leaders in touchdown receptions:
The first thing you should have noticed is that playing with Peyton Manning will result in a lot of touchdown opportunities. The second thing is that Graham is the only tight end to appear on all three leaderboards.
As everyone knows, a shitstorm of epic proportions had been brewing for quite some time in New Orleans over the inevitability of Graham’s financial future, and it began its crescendo when the Saints officially slapped him with the franchise tag on the first day of March. Almost every elite player expresses discontent in some form when tagged, as it’s an obvious avoidance of a long-term investment from his team, but Graham’s ordeal is especially contentious. He wants to be called a receiver and earn the extra $5.26 million in 2014 that he would lose if he carries the tight end moniker.
His case is a compelling one, calling into question the very fundamentals of what we know (or think we know) about positional labels. Graham lined up out wide or in the slot — like any other receiver — on 67 percent of his snaps in 2013, and his agent Jimmy Sexton is justified in pointing out that the league’s collective bargaining agreement states the franchise tag destination is based on the position “at which the franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”
New Orleans has fired back with a litany of counterarguments:
My abbreviated stance on the what-the-hell-do-we-call-Jimmy-Graham debate is this — the big guy wants the best of both worlds, and I don’t think that’s right. Graham desires receiver money while accepting All-Pro honors and Pro Bowl selections as a tight end; there is a lot incentive to be regarded as the best player in the world at one position instead of competing against a crowd of elite wideouts for endorsements and name recognition. Graham should have begun arguing for his status as a receiver last offseason. It would have been regarded as blatant financial maneuvering to anyone paying attention, but Graham would be earning a lot more sympathy points from the peanut gallery if he had played a full season under protest of what his coaches were calling him.
But there’s a bigger picture here — one that stretches farther than a star seeing dollar signs and his bosses trying to put him in his place. Fans shouldn’t be concentrating on whether Graham should be labeled as a receiver or tight end … we should be asking why the distinction matters at all.
I don’t think it’s outlandish to say that Graham is one of the best players in the NFL. In terms of pass-catchers, I would place him among the very best of the best — with A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, a healthy Rob Gronkowski, and a clean Josh Gordon. His value on the field exceeds all others. And while the franchise tag makes Graham one of the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL (based on average annual value), the $5 million gap between the two positions’ designations will invariably depress the value of Graham’s long-term contract.
Nine receivers match or exceed the AAV of the extension that Gronkowski signed before the 2012 season. Nine. That list includes Dwayne Bowe, Percy Harvin, and Greg Jennings, and they all received their paydays after Gronkowski. Despite being inferior talents and posting less production than New England’s record-setting tight end, NFL teams deemed them worthy of fatter contracts simply because of the position they played. But who would take Bowe over 2011 Gronkowski, the guy who racked up 90 receptions and 17 touchdowns as a 22-year-old?
Gronk is perpetually injured these days and doesn’t carry the titanic value he once possessed, but Graham bears no such risk, having played in 62 regular season-games in his four-year career. Why should he make comparable money to Vincent Jackson or Mike Wallace on the open market when he has out-produced them since becoming a starter? Why shouldn’t he be in the conversation for a mega-deal like Johnson’s or Larry Fitzgerald’s?
Market forces are what drive Graham and the Saints to play this silly charade — ones that rely on archaic front-office mantras and which are becoming more indefensible with every passing season. Tight ends were never paid like receivers because they were never on equal footing in terms of production and offensive value, but freaks like Graham and Gronkowski are merely the next line of evolution at a position whose elite players have been underpaid for well over a decade when compared to their receiver counterparts (see: Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten).
This bears repeating — no non-quarterback has racked up more touchdowns since the lockout than Jimmy Graham. New Orleans can continue this silly dance for one more year, but then they need to pay the man everything he is worth. Anything less than $12 million AAV is highway robbery; anything less than $15 million is still probably a bargain when you remember that the salary cap is rising through 2016 and, oh yeah, Mike Wallace has a $17.25 million cap hit this year. When factoring in Graham’s age, production, and the attention he commands from defenses every time he steps on the field, I see little justification as to why he shouldn’t become one of the NFL’s highest-paid offensive players … and not just its richest tight end.
Call him a tight end, call him a receiver, call him whatever you want. Just acknowledge where he stands in the league as an individual instead of obsessing over his position.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and is currently enrolled in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He plans to earn his MBA before attending law school in fall of 2015.