Having been handed a $7 million franchise tag classifying him as a tight end, Saints All-Pro Jimmy Graham has filed a grievance through the NFL players union arguing that he should be considered a wide receiver worth about $5 million more, a league source confirmed to The Advocate on Wednesday.
The NFL Players Association said it had no comment on the grievance when contacted after the news was first reported by USA Today.
Last season, the final one on his rookie contract from 2010, Graham led the Saints in receiving yards (1,215) and touchdown receptions (an NFL-best 16). He spent most of his time in 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints, but the team handed him a nonexclusive franchise tag that both prevented him from becoming the most-sought unrestricted free agent and labeled him a tight end, the position at which he was drafted and has been to two Pro Bowls.
Immediately, there was speculation that he might file a grievance through the players association to be classified as a wide receiver, given the massive boost in compensation that could potentially bring, depending on the decision of a third party. Wide receivers are due about $12.3 million under 2014 franchise tags.
USA Today noted that no hearing date for the grievance had been set but presumed it would be expedited.
During a press conference Wednesday, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was asked about whether there were any updates on Graham. The GM replied that there were none, and the initial USA Today report was published minutes later.
The nonexclusive tag permits Graham to talk to other teams but gives the Saints a chance to match any offer he’d want to accept. If the Saints don’t match, they would receive two first-round draft picks from the signing team. That might explain the timing of the filing of Graham’s grievance, word of which circulated the day before the first round of the 2014 draft.
If Graham signs the tag and plays under it with the Saints, he would be given a one-season deal given to franchise players at his position in the previous five years. At the center of the grievance is precisely what Graham’s position is.
The good news for the Saints is that Graham would not even play under the tag if he and the team can agree on a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline. Any ruling by the third party in regards to the grievance would give the winning side leverage in arguing how much money Graham deserves in contract negotiations.
The Saints all offseason have said that is their goal as it concerns Graham, who many think will ultimately get a contract that pays him around $10 million annually and makes him the highest-paid player ever listed as a tight end.
Graham, for the record, was not the tight end who ran the most pass routes in 2013 as a receiver. That distinction belonged to the Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez (now retired), ESPN Stats and Information reported.
But even his own teammates have come out and said it’s an antiquated notion to define Graham under any one traditional position.
“You don’t face too many tight ends or wide receivers that possess the play-making abilities he has,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton told SiriusXM NFL Radio recently.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said Graham is “a hybrid.”
Graham, during a community appearance in New Orleans in February, was asked whether he believed he was a tight end or a wide receiver.
He responded: “I am going to do — and I am going to play — what I am asked to.”
He has not been present at the Saints’ voluntary offseason workouts, which began April 21. It wasn’t expected he would be with his contract situation unresolved.
There’s somewhat of a precedent for the situation Graham and the Saints find themselves in. Terrell Suggs, the Baltimore pass rusher, was given an $8.07 million linebacker franchise tag in 2006, but he filed a grievance for a defensive-end tender that was for a bit more at about $8.9 million. Suggs and the team settled for a hybrid designation that boosted the value of the player’s tag to about $8.5 million.
Many would argue Graham is worth all of this hassle. Few Saints players have been as productive as Graham has been in his four years in New Orleans.
His 41 touchdown receptions are fourth all-time for the Saints and the most for a New Orleans tight end. His 301 catches and 3,863 receiving yards rank sixth and seventh all-time for the Saints, and they each are tops among tight ends who have suited up for the franchise.
Graham holds single-season team records for catches (99 in 2011) and receiving touchdowns (an NFL-best 16 last year). He has gone to two Pro Bowls and helped the Saints to the playoffs in 2010, ’11 and ’13. He was the Saints’ lone Associated Press first team All-Pro last year.
This post has been updated since it was first published to include updated information. Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter @RVargasAdvocate. For more coverage of Saints football, follow our Black and Gold blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/blackandgold/