Jun
23
2014
brees and graham1
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11 comments

Four years ago, the Saints drafted Jimmy Graham, an ex-basketball player from “The U”, to play tight end. Those four years as a Saint have led to two Pro Bowl appearances for the 2010 95th-overall pick, as well as being named a first-team All Pro by AP.

Now a free agent, Jimmy Graham has been franchise tagged to prevent him from being a free agent. The debate between the Saints and the player (represented by the NFLPA) – which has reached arbitration – is whether Graham’s franchise tag should be a tight-end tag or a wide receiver one. The difference between the two exceeds $5 million, which makes this battle extremely important for both parties to win.

With the deadline to reach a long-term contract with franchise players – July 15 – approaching, Graham hopes to have his franchise tag be a wide receiver one to gain more leverage in the contract negotiations. The debate as to whether he’s a wide receiver or a tight end is a fascinating one, but I choose to focus on something else – how good is he when compared to wide receivers?
When looking strictly at the numbers, he’s the #15 receiver based on last year’s receiving yards:

Rank

Player

Position

Team

Targets

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Touchdowns

1

Josh Gordon

WR

CLE

159

87

1,646

9

2

Antonio Brown

WR

PIT

165

110

1,499

8

3

Calvin Johnson

WR

DET

156

84

1,492

12

14

Vincent Jackson

WR

TB

159

78

1,224

7

15

Jimmy Graham

TE

NO

144

86

1,215

16

16

Anquan Boldin

WR

SF

130

85

1,179

7

30

Jordan Cameron

TE

CLE

117

80

917

7

The next best TE (in terms of receiving yards) to Jimmy Graham was Jordan Cameron (CLE), who put up less than 1,000 yards.

Despite getting similar targets and receptions, Graham’s yard totals lagged behind the top guys. This is probably because he isn’t always lined up wide out, and he picks up less yards-per-reception as a result.
When looking at a per-game contribution of players, Graham loses some ground:

Rank

Player

Position

Team

Receiving Yards

Games Played

Yards / Game

1

Josh Gordon

WR

CLE

1,646

14

117.6

2

Julio Jones

WR

ATL

580

5

116.0

3

Calvin Johnson

WR

DET

1,492

14

106.0

9

Rob Gronkowski

TE

NE

592

7

84.6

16

Vincent Jackson

WR

TB

1,224

16

76.5

17

Jimmy Graham

TE

NO

1,215

16

75.9

18

Anquan Boldin

WR

SF

1,179

16

73.7


Rob Gronkowski, with albeit a small sample size, actually factors into games to a greater degree than his Saints counterpart Graham (when looking strictly at yards-per-game).

If labelled a wide receiver, Graham slots in at #16 – far from the elite-receiver money he claims to deserve.

 

What is interesting to note is that each player listed in the top 15 in receiving yards is the focal point of their team’s passing attack (with Chicago having two equally important pieces of their passing game). Despite being labelled a tight end, Graham is undoubtedly the focal point of New Orleans’ entire offence.

Torrey Smith – the top receiver for the Baltimore Ravens – put up only 87 fewer yards than Graham last year and yet will command far less than elite money when his contract is up. That’s not to say that Graham doesn’t deserve elite money; rather, the point I’m trying to make is that being paid as an elite receiver for being your team’s #1 option isn’t always justified.

An elite receiver often goes up against the #1 cornerback of the opposing team (or at least, any cornerback). Due to Graham’s ability as a tight end to line up in the slot or inline, he rarely ever sees cornerbacks covering him. That is, in part, what allows him to put up such big numbers and the Saints offence to work so seamlessly (ironic, as they run so many seam routes).

On those rare occasions when he does see cornerbacks in coverage, he hasn’t proved himself to be elite. Against New England, he faced their #1 cornerback Aqib Talib almost exclusively – he finished the game reception-less. When the Seahawks put their #1 cornerback – Richard Sherman – on Graham in the Divisional Round playoff game, he totalled one catch for 8 yards (although Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas – 2 of the other members of the Legion of Boom – covered him too).

Watching his tape from the last season, a few things jump out at me. Compared to other tight ends, he’s elite at his release, point of catch, ability to make his breaks, etc. If I take those same traits are compared to other wide receivers, he’d be middling at best (due to his huge target radius).

Is he among the best tight ends to ever play the position? Absolutely. And in an age where the passing game has become such an integral part of an offence, he deserves to be paid like the best.

Is he worthy off elite wide receiver money? No. What about the second-tier of receivers ($11-12 million a year)? Not quite. Looking at him from a wide receiver point of view alone, he’d struggle to start. His value comes in his ability to line up in various position to create and exploit mismatches.

Keeping that in mind, I think it’s safe to say he deserves somewhere between the top tight ends and the second tier of receivers (around $10 million a year). Because even if he isn’t a franchise receiver, he’s a game-changing tight end. And he should be paid like one.

View poll on FanMob

Where do you think he ranks as a receiver in the NFL? Answer our poll question above or comment below to let us know, and find me on Twitter at @neershah9.



Comments
  1. “Is he worthy off elite wide receiver money? No. What about the second-tier of receivers ($11-12 million a year)? Not quite.”
    2nd tier easily, he’s #16 in a league with 32 #1 receivers and 32 #2 receivers. He’s in the middle of those #1′s. If only perhaps the top 10 recceivers are truly elite, that still easily puts him in the 2nd tier.
    He’ll go in the 2nd round of a lot of 12-team fantasy drafts.

  2. I agree with your comment (and I feel like he’d be a 1st-rounder in most fantasy drafts).

    When I referred to the second-tier wide receivers, I meant those that aren’t elite. So for example, a DeSean Jackson or an Andre Johnson. Not quite the Megatrons and AJ Greens of the first-tier, but nevertheless important pieces of their respective teams’ gameplans. Thus, by suggesting he’s below the second-tier of receivers, he’d still be worth more than most franchises’ #1 receiver.

    Apologies, I should have made it clear in the article. And thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  3. The Saints were already planning on paying Jimmy 10 grand a year, so what is the guy complaining about?

    • He’s looking potentially at a contract that pays out $12+m a year whereas the Saints are looking for a deal far below that. A higher proportion of guaranteed money is also something Graham is fighting for. Thus, the franchise tag grievance will have a significant impact on the deal Graham gets.

    • He’s arguably the best receiving tight end in the NFL. If some team like the Browns or the Jaguars were to sign him to an offer sheet (because his franchise tag is non-exclusive), I’d not be disappointed to lose him. The compensation we would receive in that scenario – two 1st-round picks – would be well worth the loss of Graham. That being said, he is a game-changer and we shouldn’t let him go as a free agent as a result.

  4. While you have the stat on your board, you really glossed over it. How many points was he responsible for per game when compared to the elite receivers? We like to talk yards after the catch, passes caught, total % of offensive yards, etc, BUT (and it’s a big but), at the end of the day, all that matters is how many points you put up. Did you put up more than your opponent? Ask Peyton Manning if he would have rather have broken records last year or put up more points in the Super Bowl than his opponent.

    Compare his points per game output to the top tier receivers, and how does he look?

    • Certainly, his points-per-game was among the best in the NFL, due to his league-leading 16 touchdowns. He’s as big a red-zone threat as you can get. But a lot of the credit for those touchdowns should also go to the offensive scheme and playcalling, and Drew Brees. The Saints throw a lot more TDs in the season than other teams, though. To get a better idea about his importance to the Saints, perhaps a more valid statistic would be the proportion of his team’s TDs in a season, compared to other elite WRs.

    • I ran the numbers and both Graham and Megatron accounted for 41% of their team’s passing touchdowns. A.J. Green was at 33%, Dez Bryant was at 31%, Josh Gordon was at 35% and Larry Fitzgerald was at 42%.

      So the numbers tell us that Graham is a bigger part of the Saints offence compared to elite receivers in other teams. But that is in part due to the scheme run in New Orleans. Drew Brees and the Saints offence led the NFL with 28.1% of their throws being targeted at tight ends. It goes to show how important a receiving tight end is to the Saints offence.

  5. Did Jimmy Graham play in the 4th quarter in week 8 vs. Buffalo? I am doing research on his durability and I cannot find that information. Thank you for your assistance?

    • Just had a look at his 4th quarter against the Bills. He didn’t feature through that quarter, with the Saints using Ben Watson and Josh Hill instead. All-in-all, Graham played 20 of the 73 offensive snaps on that day (according to Pro Football Focus).