- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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It likely won’t be an issue for a half-decade with the Detroit Lions, and by then much might have changed in the NFL and how tight ends and bigger wide receivers are viewed.
But there has to be a lot of interest in what is going on down south in New Orleans right now, where the Saints are in a grievance hearing with tight end Jimmy Graham, who is trying to be labeled a wide receiver for franchise tag purposes instead of a tight end.
Up until May, this would not have been an issue in Detroit. By the time Brandon Pettigrew's next contract is up, he will be old enough that the team won’t use the franchise tag on him. Joseph Fauria has not shown enough at this point to warrant the tag.
But in May the Lions drafted Eric Ebron, a fast, rangy, tight end who made the majority of his plays in college lined up essentially as a wide receiver. And the Lions are implementing an offense similar to what New Orleans runs -- one where Graham has been utilized all over the field in varying ways -- so how the ruling comes down could be of massive interest for Detroit’s distant future.
If the Saints win the grievance, the Lions will have precedent if Ebron pans out and the team needs to eventually use the franchise tag designation to keep him -- six years from now. If Graham wins, though, it would make Ebron one of the players who would almost assuredly be in the same category in the future.
While Ebron has maintained he does not want to be the next Jimmy Graham or anything like that -- he has consistently said he’s Eric Ebron, not Jimmy Graham -- his role in the Detroit offense is going to be somewhat similar to how the Saints used Graham.
Though Ebron has the tight end designation, the way he plays is almost like a tall wide receiver both in his route running and where he will line up on the field. While he will have the same positional designation as Pettigrew, they won’t be used in the same way at all.
This is part of the evolution of the tight end from a player used primarily close to the offensive line or as an in-line player to someone utilized everywhere on the field, in-line, in the slot and on the outside. This is likely part of Graham’s argument now.
And it will likely be part of the conversation if Ebron ever reaches the point of a grievance. Yes, it is a distant future where much can change between now and then since only two coaches in the Super Bowl era have lasted with Detroit to a sixth season -- Wayne Fontes and Monte Clark -- but the team is hoping Ebron’s skills transcend whatever happens with the franchise.
Of course, the team drafted him to help them win.
So decisions like this are worth paying attention to -- and even Ebron himself acknowledged Wednesday that he is watching what is happening with Graham in New Orleans.
“Really Interested To See What Happens To Jimmy Graham,” Ebron tweeted Wednesday morning.
He likely isn’t the only one within the Lions organization with a major interest in the outcome.