NEW ORLEANS — The Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the NFL Players Association were dealt a setback Wednesday when an arbitrator ruled that he can only be considered a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag designation.
NFLPA had filed a grievance arguing that Graham was used as a wide receiver often enough to qualify for the more lucrative receiver tag. But arbitrator Stephen Burbank disagreed and now the NFLPA is reviewing his ruling, and will advise Graham on his options, which could include an appeal.
Graham’s case is being closely watched around the league because it could set a precedent for negotiations involving players who fill diverse roles in their teams’ offensive or defensive schemes. For example, some outside linebackers in a 3-4 defensive scheme could argue their right to receive the higher defensive end tag.
NFL franchise tags, which allow each team to keep one prized player who is due to become a free agent, were set this year at $7 million for tight ends and $12.3 million for receivers.
Burbank, who is also a University of Pennsylvania law professor, found that Graham could fulfill the standard duties of a tight end when he was lined up in the slot or within 4 yards of an offensive tackle, as he was for most of his snaps.
Burbank further pointed out that defenses usually accounted for Graham as a tight end, regardless of his alignment, by assigning a linebacker or safety to cover him.
“Like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot,” Burbank’s ruling stated. “The defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player’s position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions.”
In its statement, the NFLPA said: “We will also continue to assist Graham and his representation as necessary to help the player reach a fair long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints.”
July 15 is the final day a team can sign 2014 franchise players to long-term extensions. Otherwise, they must play under their franchise tag designation for one season.