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Jimmy Graham and The Franchise Tag

By Matthew Luchs

Under the current National Football League (NFL) Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a franchise tag is defined as a contractual tool that allows a team to keep a pending unrestricted free agent, on its roster for an additional year with a guaranteed contract. The value of the contract is determined by "summing the amounts of the Franchise Tags for players at that position for the five preceding League Years; (2) dividing the resulting amount by the sum of the Salary Caps for the five preceding League Years (using the average of the amounts of the 2009 and 2011 Salary Caps as the Salary Cap amount for the 2010 League Year); and (3) multiplying the resulting percentage by the Salary Cap for the upcoming League Year." (CBA, Article 10, Section 1-2) This provision allows for small market teams to keep players who often desire to move to big city franchises that pay more, for an additional year.

Tight end Jimmy Graham, who at 6'7" and 265 lbs., also totes a 4.53 second 40-yard dash time, is a force with which to be reckoned on the football field and is closing in on the last year of his rookie contract. Graham is on pace to set records for the most receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions by a tight end in a single season this year in the NFL. It is likely that the New Orleans Saints will use its franchise tag on him, even if a deal cannot be reached by this February, before he hits the open market. Graham may attempt to be categorized as a wide receiver for franchise tag purposes because wide receivers have a higher franchise tag salary than tight ends. "If the 2014 salary cap is around $127 million, then the tight end tag would be $6.7 million, while the receiver tag would be $11.6 million. That's a staggering difference on a one-year deal." (http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/writer/jason-la-canfora/24036481/what-happens-if-the-saints-decide-to-franchise-jimmy-graham)

Although Graham is registered by the New Orleans Saints as a tight end, it has often been a point of debate on whether he truly fits that designation. Recently, an NFL analyst stated the following, "Though he plays tight end, Graham is at the vanguard of the growing trend of spread formations with tight ends in the slot or out wide, and not used nearly as much in the traditional role of engaging as a blocker at the point of attack." (http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/writer/jason-la-canfora/24036481/what-happens-if-the-saints-decide-to-franchise-jimmy-graham) The National Football League Player Association (NFLPA) sources indicate that consideration for player positions are determined by positional distinction in the playbook; such as how often a player blocks and is involved in the run game, and what percentage of the time he lines up outside the hash marks. (http://www.sportingcharts.com/dictionary/nfl/franchise-tag.aspx)

This is not the first time that this issue has been brought before the NFL. In the past, both Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 and Jared Cook of the Tennessee Titans in 2012 had similar issues with position designations. Cook argued that he should be entitled to the franchise tag of a wide receiver, because he spent more than half of his offensive plays lined up in that position. Cook believed that the likelihood of success that the NFL characterized him as a tight end was small. Therefore, Jared Cook and the Tennessee Titans never reached an agreement, and the franchise tag was never applied to him as a tight end. Cook elected to test free agency before any further agreements could be made. The St. Louis Rams subsequently signed him this year. Tennessee was not willing to offer Cook, beyond the lower salary of a franchise tagged tight end, the type of contract that a franchise tag of a wide receiver would guarantee him. His argument was never officially brought before the NFL.

Similarly, Suggs was a linebacker for the Ravens, but argued that since he played more time at the defensive end position, he should get the franchise tag of a defensive end. (http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3394771) Suggs filed a grievance asking a Special Master to determine his true position, but the Ravens and Suggs agreed separately that he would be paid half the difference of what a linebacker and a defensive end made as a franchise tag player. The NFL never officially ruled on the matter as well. However, the NFL has made it very clear that the Suggs case is in no way a precedent for future issues that may arise for player definitions and the franchise tag application. (http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/writer/jason-la-canfora/24036481/what-happens-if-the-saints-decide-to-franchise-jimmy-graham)

Sean Peyton, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, has indicated that the Saints are not going to change the way they are using Jimmy Graham to help get around the player designation issue. Instead, Peyton stated that he is "going to do whatever we have to do to win games, whether that's line [Graham] up wide, in the slot, three yards off the tackle, five yards off the tackle or right next to the tackle..." (http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nfl--potential-contract-ramifications-will-have-no-impact-on-how-saints-use-jimmy-graham-013308568.html).

At this current moment, six weeks into the 2013-2014 NFL season, it is difficult to tell whether this issue will need to be brought before the NFL. Maybe the Saints will be able to work out a contract extension to the liking of Graham. Perhaps there will be a settlement between the two parties, similar to the Ravens and Suggs that would allow the NFL to abstain from answering this perplexing question. It is unlikely that the Saints will let Graham walk like the Titans did with Cook. Come February, however, it should be clearer on whether the NFL will have to take a stance on Graham's situation and similar issues.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 3, 2013 11:36 AM.

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