- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Monday is the first day that NFL teams can begin using franchise or transition tags on their free agents -- which means we're inching closer to one of the more fascinating contract debates in recent history between the New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Graham.
At some point between now and the March 3 deadline, the Saints will use their franchise tag on Graham, unless they work out a long-term contract extension first (which seems highly unlikely).
When that happens, Graham and agent Jimmy Sexton are expected to file a grievance through the NFL Players Association claiming that Graham should officially be franchised as a wide receiver instead of a tight end, since he lined up either in the slot or out wide for 67 percent of his snaps last season.
A third-party arbitrator would then be agreed upon by the NFLPA and the NFL Management Council to hear the case. And that will be a monumental decision, since the difference between the franchise tag salary for a tight end and receiver is expected to be around $6.7 million versus $11.5 million.
I broke down the possible scenarios at length last week, with some great insight from longtime former NFL general manager Bill Polian and data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.
It will be fascinating to see if the two sides actually let this stalemate last all the way up to an arbitrator's decision. In the past, similar debates have crept up, but all of them have ultimately been worked out before reaching an arbitrator's decision.
However, finding a middle ground will be easier said than done in this case.
The Saints believe strongly that Graham should be considered a tight end -- which would give them a strong case for keeping his salary below $10 million per year in a long-term contract extension. But Graham's side will likely push for a contract well more than $10 million per year -- more in line with the top receivers around the NFL who put up similar numbers.
As for the specific type of franchise tag the Saints will use on Graham, I'm assuming they'll go with the more traditional “non-exclusive” tag over the more costly “exclusive rights” tag. Here's a breakdown of those options.
If the Saints somehow work out a long-term deal with Graham in the next two weeks, I wouldn't expect them to use any of their tags on any other pending free agents.