Today’s NFL is marked by high-flying offenses and even more astronomical statistics. While quarterbacks and wide receivers have seen their numbers soar over the past decade, the tight end position may end up being the largest benefactor of this pass-first league.
Though Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez and others got the ball rolling a couple decades ago by showing tight ends could actually be elite receiving threats, the continued evolution of football has now made the receiving tight end a must have for NFL teams. At this point, as tight ends are spending more and more of their time split out wide or in the slot, their role and position has become nearly indistinguishable from that of wide receivers.
By far, the best example of this transition has been Jimmy Graham, who has engrained himself as one of the best offensive weapons in the league over the past three years. Unfortunately for the Saints, as Graham’s rookie contract expired at the end of the season, his success in this new NFL is likely to lead to a much bigger hole in New Orleans’ pocket as he heads into free agency.
The Saints are expected to use the franchise tag on Graham in an attempt to prolong giving him the record-breaking extension he is likely to get down the road. Yet, this route may end up leading to more conflict as Graham and his camp should be expected to fight for the classification of receiver as opposed to tight end. Though the differences between the two positions may have diminished on the field, they are still present in the ownerships pocketbooks. Even though Graham is more valuable to his team and the NFL then nearly any receiver, under last years’ franchise tag he would have earned $4.5 million less.
Graham is likely to argue that he should be classified, and subsequently paid, as a wide receiver under Article 9, section 2 of the CBA which states, “The tender will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays.” Meaning, if Graham did in fact spend more plays lined up out wide then on the line, there should be no question that he should be classified as a wide receiver.
As for the Saints, their argument will probably be centered on the fact that the tight end position has changed and Graham is just one of the catalysts. It isn’t just Graham who is playing off the line, but many of the tight ends throughout the league. Graham’s position doesn’t need to be redefined, the position of tight end does.
New Orleans’ front office already showed they were willing to play hardball two years ago when they delayed signing Brees to an extension until just before the tag deadline passed in July. Still, if the Saints don’t end up paying Graham the money he wants, somebody else will.
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