On Wednesday, third-party arbitrator Stephen Burbank issued his 12-page ruling, concluding that Jimmy Graham is indeed a tight end for franchise-tag purposes. After being slapped with the tag, the NFLPA filed a grievance on Graham’s behalf in May, arguing that he lined up for 67 percent of his snaps either out wide, or in the slot; and should be considered a wide receiver.
In his report, Burbank cites several compelling arguments from both sides, but ultimately sides with the Saints. Perhaps the most damning evidence against Graham was the that when he lined up in the slot, he was still in close proximity to offensive linemen. He was, in fact, within four yards of said linemen on over 50 percent of his snaps.
"In sum, I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or 'arm's-length' from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was aligned in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such lineman,"said Burbank in his conclusion. "Since Mr. Graham was so aligned for a majority of plays during the 2013 League Year, the NFLPA's request for 'a declaration that the correct tender for Mr. Graham is at the wide receiver position' is denied."
Also working against Graham in this case was the coverage he faced. Graham often lined up against linebackers and safeties, which, as Saints coach Sean Payton attested, is not a common practice for covering wide receivers.
When our receivers are lined up widest in formations, they are never covered by safeties or linebackers ever,” testified Payton. “Never ever ever ever ever does a linebacker match up with a wide receiver ever.”
Graham’s designation is significant, as the disparity of the value of the franchise tags between the position and wide receiver is roughly $5 million. As a receiver, the franchise tender would have paid Graham $12.132. Under a franchise tag this season, a tight end will “only” receive $7.053 million.
The dispute between Graham and the Saints looks to have also created an impasse in negotiations for a long-term extension, which apparently are at “ground zero.” Franchise-tendered players have until July 15 to work out a deal with their clubs.
The NFLPA and Graham now have 10 days to appeal Burbank’s ruling.
"The NFLPA will review with Jimmy Graham the decision from Arbitrator Stephen Burbank which permits the player to be designated as a tight end for Franchise Tag purposes. We will advise Graham of his options and carefully determine next steps in this matter," said the NFLPA in a statement. "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."