Earlier this week, an arbitrator ruled that New Orleans Saints “pass catcher” Jimmy Graham is indeed a tight end, and not a wide receiver, as he attempted to argue.
The purpose of the challenge was to contend that the Saint’s franchise tag placed upon him was undervalued, because the value of the franchise tag for a wide receiver is significantly greater than that of a tight end, to the tune of some $5 million.
Graham argued that within the offense, he was primarily used as a wide receiver, and thus his franchise tag should reflect that. Pro Football Focus claims that Graham played 587 snaps last season as a wide receiver, as opposed to 292 as a tight end. He was split wide on 191 occasions and in the slot 396 times.
The arbitrator argued, however, that he trains and prepares as a tight end and with the tight ends, attending the tight end meeting rooms and learning the tight end craft, even if he ultimately serves more of a wide receiver role in the offense.
It was also argued that defenses play him as they would most other tight ends, being covered primarily by safeties and linebackers rather than by cornerbacks. His defensive coverage involved a cornerback only about 30 percent of the time.
Others have also argued that it would not be in the best interests of the organization to consider Graham a wide receiver because his performance as a pass catcher when defended by cornerbacks is below average. I have not looked into that claim, nor does it seem relevant to the actual determination of position.
The compelling arguments, to me, are the fact that he trains and prepares as a tight end and that teams generally defend him as a tight end. However, I concede that given his usage, a sound argument can be made either way.
The topic raises broader questions about the employment of the franchise tag, however. For example, what about players who truly have multiple positions?
When does a safety become a cornerback? New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle has frequently played cornerback over the years, often for injury purposes, for his team. Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Carnell Lake has played cornerback due to injury as well.
If they’d been franchised following those seasons during which they primarily played cornerback, would they be tagged as a cornerback? Could they make that argument?
What about Andrew Whitworth of the Cincinnati Bengals? The veteran tackle moved to guard because of injuries last year. If he were a free agent, could the Bengals try to tag him as a guard—and could they win? Could Alan Faneca have done the opposite the year he played tackle instead of guard because of injuries?
What about a player such as former Giant David Diehl, who had moved all over the line wherever he was needed, between both guard and tackle? What would weigh heaviest: where he played last, or where he was expected to play? These circumstances all present an interesting knot that the arbitration process may one day be asked to untie.