Each wearing business suits and ties, Saints All-Pro Jimmy Graham and coach Sean Payton shuffled in and out of view on the second floor of the New Orleans-area hotel for several hours in the afternoon Wednesday, the day the star player’s franchise-tag-related grievance hearing was scheduled to conclude.
Eventually, the man presiding over the hearing — NFL system arbitrator Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor — descended into the lobby and printed out airline tickets. Graham’s agent, Jimmy Sexton; and Payton were among several others who followed, and an unidentified man who was with them confirmed that the two-day meeting was over.
Asked for comment, Graham said, “I can’t say anything. ... No.” Sexton was equally tight-lipped.
Payton smiled, nodded and politely greeted, “Hey, how are you doing?” He then quickly said, “No comment,” and walked to his car in the hotel’s parking garage.
It wasn’t immediately clear what was to come next. In a pair of relatively recent dealings with the Saints, Burbank has issued rulings five and six days after hearings wrapped up.
Of course, the whole dispute at the heart of the matter would end if the Saints and Graham work out a long-term deal to replace the contract Graham accepted from New Orleans as a rookie in 2010 and has now expired.
To prevent the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham from becoming an unrestricted free agent when his contract lapsed in March, the Saints handed him a one-year franchise tag that is worth more than $7 million and classifies him as a tight end.
But because Graham lined up as a receiver on more than two of every three plays in 2013, when he led the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown grabs, he filed a grievance in May through the league players union arguing that he should get a wideout franchise tag worth more than $12 million.
The collective bargaining agreement the NFL adopted in 2011 states that the kind of tag Graham was given should pay out the average of the five largest salaries from the previous season given to players at the position at which the player participated in the most plays during the previous season.
On one side at the hearing was Graham and the players union, contending that he was clearly utilized as a wide receiver in 2013.
On the other, the NFL Management Council was expected to argue he was merely utilized in a manner consistent with how tight ends have been used in the modern NFL: as hybrid blockers and pass receivers. Tight end is the position at which Graham was drafted; at which he’s been to two Pro Bowls and was selected first-team All-Pro in 2013; and the one he lists in the bio box for his Twitter account, the league management council was prepared to assert.
If Graham triumphs in his grievance, the entire $12 million would count against the Saints’ 2014 salary cap. The team was about $1.63 million under that limit at 3:19 p.m. Wednesday, counting Graham’s tight-end tag, meaning the team would have to create cap space by restructuring deals on the books, terminating players under contract or trading them.
Furthermore, any ruling that might come on Graham’s playing position should give significant leverage to the winning side in negotiations about how much money he should make annually under any new long-term deal.
The CBA mandates that the system arbitrator’s determinations “upon their issuance be binding upon and followed by the parties unless stayed, reversed, or modified” by a three-person appeals panel, one member of which is a former judge.
Any side protesting a system arbitrator’s decision would have 10 days to serve notice of an appeal. Unless otherwise agreed to, they would then have at least 15 days and no more than 25 from the date of a decision to lodge a brief in support of an appeal.
The opposite side would have as much time to respond in writing to any appellate brief. Oral arguments would be set between five and 10 days after that. And a written decision on the appeal would be issued within 30 days of oral arguments, unless the schedule is accelerated for “good cause,” according to the CBA.
The conclusion Wednesday of the grievance hearing came after the Saints delayed media access to an organized team activities (“OTAs”) practice by a day.
A Saints spokesman said the team decided to do that because they had missed practice Tuesday to play paintball near Mandeville, as is the club’s tradition.
Officials informed some 50 reporters and photographers about the change after they had gathered outside the Saints’ indoor practice facility, where the OTAs were unfolding.
Thursday is the final day of Saints OTAs before they report to training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on July 24. During OTAs, which are voluntary, there have been eight days of practice since May 27. There was also a mandatory three-day minicamp June 10-12.
Graham is not technically under contract because he has not signed his franchise tag. He has not participated in OTAs, and he missed the minicamp.
Advocate sportswriter Ted Lewis contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story initially misidentified an attendee at the site of Graham’s grievance hearing who declined comment as NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith. A Saints spokesman on Thursday, June 19, 2014, said Smith was not at the meeting, and the erroneous reference to him has been removed from this article.