Jimmy Graham, Saints are both right

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
9:20
PM ET
I agree with the New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham is a tight end.

And I agree with Graham's camp: He should be paid like a top wide receiver.

One of the more fascinating contract debates in recent NFL history was officially set in motion Friday when the Saints placed their franchise tag on Graham. His agent is expected to quickly counter with a grievance that claims Graham should be labeled as a wide receiver instead of a tight end, which would mean a projected franchise-tag salary of $12.3 million instead of $7.04 million.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNew Orleans should avoid arbitration and pay Jimmy Graham at least $10 million a season.
The winner of that debate will also earn a massive amount of leverage in long-term contract negotiations. So Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and agent Jimmy Sexton will have to be willing to play an expensive game of chicken if they leave that decision in the hands of a neutral, third-party arbitrator, whose ruling will be tough to predict.

As far as I know, I'm not eligible for the arbitrator job. But I'll go ahead and offer my two cents on the multimillion-dollar topics of the day:

1. I believe Graham is a tight end. True, he lined up for 67 percent of his snaps in the slot or out wide last year. But that's part of a tight end's job description -- especially in the modern NFL.

That was the same ratio last year as future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (whose salary is used to help calculate the franchise-tag figure for tight ends, by the way). And many of the NFL's top tight ends today spend at least 45 percent of their snaps in those traditional receiver positions.

The collective bargaining agreement states that the franchise-tag designation is based on the position "at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year." But how do you define when a player is lining up at tight end? To me, it's a combination job -- sometimes lining up as a blocker, sometimes as a receiver. Wide receivers, on the other hand, spend close to 100 percent of their snaps out wide or in the slot.

2. As long as I've anointed myself as the arbitrator, I'll also declare that the two sides should scrap the franchise-tag debate and agree on a long-term deal worth at least $10 million per year.

If it weren't for the franchise tag, the debate over what position Graham plays wouldn't matter a lick. Call him whatever you want -- a tight end, a receiver, a hybrid, a matchup nightmare. If he were free to go to the highest bidder, his unique skill set would probably fetch something in the area of $12 million per year.

That would put Graham in the ballpark of receivers such as Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson. It sure seems like he fits in that group to me.

Unfortunately for Graham, though, the franchise tag prevents him from hitting the open market. The Saints can actually use the tag on Graham for up to three years (which would require raises of 20 percent and 44 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively).

But even with that leverage, the Saints should recognize that Graham has earned at least $10 million per year. That would make him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing the $9 million average of Rob Gronkowski's 2012 extension with the New England Patriots.

All you have to do is look at Graham's numbers to see that he's worth it. His 36 touchdown receptions over the past three years are the most in the NFL, regardless of position. And he has averaged 90 catches and 1,169 yards per year during that span.

Yes, Graham was kept quiet during the playoffs this past season, with a total of four catches for 52 yards against Philadelphia and Seattle. But both opponents clearly made Graham their No. 1 priority, with safeties such as All-Pro Earl Thomas spying on him. And that has value, too, as the Saints proved by running for 185 yards while the Eagles sat back in coverage.

Even more than his value on the field, Graham has also been a model player for the franchise. He has repeatedly played through injuries -- some significant, including a wrist injury in 2012 and a partially torn plantar fascia in 2013. And he never publicly complained or threatened to hold out while playing out his rookie contract as one of the best bargains in the league over the past four years.

I expect the contract talks to drag on for a while because they are so groundbreaking. It's reminiscent of two years ago, when the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees waited until July to make Brees the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time.

The only thing that could speed this process along is that fear of turning over that crucial decision to a third-party arbitrator. That's probably why similar debates -- tight ends Jared Cook and Jermichael Finley the past two years and linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs in 2008 -- never reached the point of an arbitrator's decision.

No matter how long it takes, though, I ultimately expect the two sides to reach a long-term deal. I expect Graham to stay in New Orleans -- and to keep revolutionizing the tight end position -- for years to come.

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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