Because he lined up more than 2 yards away from the nearest tackle on most of his reps during the 2013 season, Saints All-Pro Jimmy Graham said he could not fulfill one or more of the three primary duties tight ends perform in the NFL: run-blocking, pass-protecting and route-running.
That’s mainly why he deserved to be considered a wide receiver — not a tight end — and should be paid about $5 million more under a 2014 franchise tag that New Orleans gave him earlier this offseason, he and his players union representatives argued at a two-day grievance hearing in Metairie on June 17 and 18, according to a decision released Wednesday.
But then, in front of the arbitrator handling the matter, Saints coach Sean Payton testified it was “mythical” that tight ends “potentially on any play could run-block, pass-block or go out for a pattern.” He noted Saints receivers lined up the widest in formations were “never ever ever ever ever” covered by opposing safeties or linebackers, a copy of the decision showed.
Graham was, on the other hand.
Bill Polian — the former president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts as well as an expert witness in the case — also told arbitrator Stephen Burbank that tights ends have “two ways to pass protect in (situations where the defense brings the safety up).” And tight ends are frequently taught that, Polian said.
On Wednesday, two weeks after the hearing concluded, Graham and the rest of the pro football world learned he’d lost his case in favor of the one Payton and Polian helped present. Graham was not a wide receiver due a $12 million-plus franchise tag next season, despite his reasoning. He was a tight end, Burbank judged; and he would instead make about $7 million if he signed the tag.
The Saints and Graham can also reach agreement on a new long-term contract to replace the expired one he accepted from the team as a rookie in 2010 any time before a July 15 deadline. Many pundits believe he should still get a deal that pays him more than a six-year, $54 million one given to New England’s Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s highest paid tight end. But Burbank’s ruling likely cost Graham the leverage he needed to command the millions more annually a franchise wideout could.
If Graham signs neither the tag that prevented him from becoming a free agent when his contract lapsed nor a new deal, he would sit the year out.
Graham can also appeal Burbank’s decision. But, unless expedited, that process would drag out well past the July 15 deadline. The players union on Wednesday said it was assisting Graham in reviewing his options moving forward.
Meanwhile, the text of Burbank’s decision shone light on the debate that pitted Graham against the team he led with 1,215 receiving yards, an NFL-best 16 touchdown catches, and a first-team All-Pro selection last year.
Testifying at his hearing, Graham said the reason coaches put tight ends a pair of yards away from the closest tackle is so they “also have the ability to pass protect, which is another form of blocking.”
“If a player is not ‘tight’ to another player, then he loses the main attribute of the position,” Graham’s union advocates wrote in a legal brief filed to Burbank after the hearing.
Payton and Polian testified to the contrary during the course of proceedings that featured numerous witnesses. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis testified that, before drafting Graham, the team assessed his physique, traits, skills and potential based off metrics New Orleans relies on to evaluate tight ends, ones that were different than what the organization looked for in receivers.
That included the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham’s immense size, Loomis said.
Loomis echoed part of Payton’s testimony by saying the tactical reactions Graham’s presence elicited from defenses was different from those typically caused by players with the physical attributes and skills of receivers, including those in the slot, which Polian defined for Burbank as “basically an area halfway between where a normally spaced wide receiver would be placed and the offensive tackle.”
Evidence was introduced that Graham was always listed as a tight end on the Saints roster, as expected. He took preseason conditioning tests and got team manuals given to Saints tight ends. And Graham and his agents referred to him as a tight end on Twitter and Facebook social media accounts he controls.
Ultimately, at the heart of the matter was language the NFL collective bargaining agreement adopted in 2011 stating 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 in question manned for the most plays during the prior season.
In explaining his judgment, Burbank cited evidence both sides accepted as fact that established Graham lined up within 4 yards of the closest tackle on 54.6 percent of his snaps and in the slot in 51.7 percent of them. Burbank limited his analysis to those plays because that’s where he participated the most, he said.
Burbank added evidence in the hearing indicated that NFL teams since the early 1960s have deployed tight ends in multiple locations on the field. Often, they’ve lined up more than 2 yards from the closest tackle as well as in the slot.
Graham, therefore, was a tight end for tag purposes whenever he lined up tight with the nearest tackle or in the slot, “at least if such alignment brought him within 4 yards of such (tackle).”
Burbank wrote: “Since Mr. Graham was so aligned for a majority of plays during the 2013 League Year, the (players union) request for ‘a declaration that the correct (tag) tender for Mr. Graham is at ... wide receiver’ is denied.”