We knew the fight was coming. Fans and professionals throughout the world of the NFL have been watching and waiting for the New Orleans Saints to apply the franchise tag to Jimmy Graham, and for a ruling to be made on whether he would be tagged as a tight end or a wide receiver. The tag was applied several days ago. On Monday, the NFL pushed this story another step forward.
The NFL's Management Council has decided to deem Jimmy Graham a tight end for purposes of the franchise tag. The league's release even quotes the relevant language from the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which states that the tender will be based on "the position . . . at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year."
The ruling sets the stage for a grievance to be filed by Graham and the NFLPA, arguing that Graham is actually a receiver. Graham's side will argue that he lined up more as receiver than as a tight end in 2013. The Saints will argue that tight ends routinely line up in the slot or split wide. In the end, the Saints should win this battle. Not only is the role of tight end becoming more of a hybrid role in the modern NFL, but -- more importantly -- only tight ends line up tight to the tackle.
When the expected grievance goes before review, the Saints hope to persuade the System Arbitrator to find that, when Graham lines up in the slot or split wide, he's still participating in those plays as a tight end. Graham was used by the Saints almost identically to how the Falcons utilized tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose contract helped determine the price for Graham's franchise tag as a tight end.
This is an issue that has been lingering for the last few years, and the matter coming to a head this year will likely result in a much-anticipated resolution to set the precedent for similar cases moving forward. For now, however, over five million dollars could hang in the balance.
Now that the Saints just received a good helping of leverage in the contract negotiations, Jimmy Graham has little reason to rush to a contract. He knows he will be making much more than the $3.3 million he has received in four NFL seasons; and he already knows New Orleans is planning on making him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. He also knows that his buddy and NFLPA executive committee member Drew Brees won a contract dispute ruling in 2012, when it was determined that his first franchise tag by the New Orleans Saints would actually count as his second franchise tag, since he had already been tagged once before, by the San Diego Chargers.
Waiting for a final decision on the grievance/appeal won't make the Saints any less willing to pay what they have already placed on the bargaining table. Neither will waiting to see if anyone is willing to pony up more than Loomis is offering, in addition to a couple of first round draft picks. Nothing unexpected has happened yet, so it's not quite time for Saints fans to panic. However, they shouldn't expect this matter to be resolved quickly.