On July 3rd, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that Jimmy Graham is a tight end for purposes of the NFL’s franchise tag. You can read a very good analysis of Burbank’s ruling from Jason Lisk here. But after reading Burbank’s full report, I wanted to add my thoughts. And let’s start with a high-level overview.
Football is not baseball: position designations are much more fluid in football, and they also hold less inherent meaning. You can have five wide receivers on the field in football, but you can’t play five third basemen. You can go without a tight end or fullback for long stretches in a game, but you don’t exactly see baseball teams going without a first basemen very often.
In baseball, emphasizing position distinctions make sense because of the rigidity of the designation and the inherent scarcity involved in building a team. A catcher that can hit is more valuable than a first baseman that can hit, because it’s much easier finding a first baseman that’s a productive offensive player. In football, those concepts don’t necessarily apply, which gets us to the Jimmy Graham issue. Four years ago, when writing about Art Monk, I referenced Sean Lahman’s section on Monk in Lahman’s fantastic Pro Football Historical Abstract:
Even though Monk lined up as a wide receiver, his role was really more like that of a tight end. He used his physicality to catch passes. He went inside and over the middle most of the time. He was asked to block a lot. All of those things make him a different creature than the typical speed receiver…. His 940 career catches put him in the middle of a logjam of receivers, but he’d stand out among tight ends. His yards per catch look a lot better in that context as well.
I haven’t heard anyone else suggesting that we consider Monk as a hybrid tight end, but coach Joe Gibbs hinted at it in an interview with Washington sportswriter Gary Fitzgerald:
“What has hurt Art — and I believe should actually boost his credentials — is that we asked him to block a lot,” Gibbs said. “He was the inside portion of pass protection and we put him in instead of a big tight end or running back. He was a very tough, physical, big guy.”
Monk said similar things:
“In  we were pass oriented and that didn’t work so well. So we went to a ground game. About this period of time we shifted a little into more of a balanced offense. I was moved from being just a wide receiver to playing H back. I would come out of the backfield and do a lot of motion. And we had a lot of success with that.”
And here’s more from Coach Gibbs:
‘We used him almost as a tight end a lot,’ said Gibbs, ‘and not only did he do it willingly, he was a great blocker for us.’
Heck, Graham may be more “wide receiver” than Monk was. But identifying Graham a tight end or a wide receiver is meaningless. Calling Graham a tight end doesn’t mean the Saints not “get” to put another wideout on the field, and calling him a wide receiver doesn’t mean the Saints “have” to put an extra tight end on the field. His position classification has no impact on what the Saints do on the field. Which left Burbank to ultimately decide something very meaningful — his compensation — based on something very meaningless.
It was Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that “hard cases make bad law.” This appears to be one of those situations. The franchise tag was introduced in connection with free agency: owners “permitted” players to sign with different teams by allowing free agency, but in exchange, the franchise tag was introduced as a way of allowing teams to keep their elite players. This wasn’t unpopular at the time: nobody wanted to see the Broncos lose John Elway or the Dolphins lose Dan Marino.
Fast forward twenty years, and the franchise tag is now being applied to kickers, which means the NFL has lost any ability to save face that the franchise tag is anything other than a way to depress player salaries. Now, the Players Association agreed to the CBA which provides that different positions should get different franchise tag values, and that’s why we landed in the Graham predicament. Is Graham more like Calvin Johnson or Ben Hartsock?1 In terms of what he does on the field and the value he provides to his team, the answer is pretty clear. But in terms of his “position”, one could make convinving arguments both ways. Burbank decided to focus on where Graham lined up (within four yards of the tackle the majority of the time) rather than the type of production he provided.
Burbank’s decision was not easy, because the entire argument exists in shades of gray. The wide receiver/tight end distinction is not black and white: it consists of a spectrum, with Hines Ward and Art Monk somewhere in the middle, Ben Hartsock on one end, and players like Megatron on the other. Graham, Tony Gonzalez, and Julius Thomas, are somewhere in the middle, too, as are incoming rookies Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro. On the open market, Graham would have been paid more like a wide receiver than a tight end, but Burbank may have been limited by the terms of the CBA. He wasn’t able to make the decision based on player value. Again, hard cases make for bad law.
Teams with flex tight ends like the Broncos are no doubt thrilled with the ruling, but positional fights over the tag are likely just beginning. In the modern era, flexibility is king, particularly when it comes to defensive players. Is Tyrann Mathieu a safety or a cornerback? When teams use a big nickel, is that third safety a corner or a safety?
Would the Jets be forced to franchise Muhammad Wilkerson or Sheldon Richardson at defensive end, their nominal positions, or could New York try to tag one of them as a defensive tackle? Surely arguments can be made both ways. Could Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, or Danny Amendola be franchised as tight ends? Victor Cruz lined up in the slot on 69% of his routes last year — does that mean he’s not a wide receiver? But perhaps the most interesting case, in light of the way the NFLPA argued for Graham, involves 3-4 defensive ends. And in light of Aldon Smith‘s off-the-field issues, it seems likely that the 49ers would be much more comfortable using the franchise tag on Smith rather than offering him a long-term deal (especially now that the tag need not be reserved for Colin Kaepernick). The difference between the linebacker franchise tag and the defensive end franchise tag is not insignificant: Terrell Suggs fought the Ravens over this issue in 2008.
Using the “value” argument, it would seem fair that the 49ers should have to franchise Smith as a defensive end: after all, the team would want to keep him because of his ability to get after the passer, and he’s much more like a defensive end than a linebacker when it comes to getting to the quarterback. But his nominal position is linebacker, and the NFLPA may as well have drafted the opening paragraph to the NFL’s brief in the event of an Aldon Smith position battle. Take a read at what Burbank cited in the Graham ruling:
The NFLPA argues that all of the facts recited above concerning Mr. Graham’s evaluation and treatment by the Saints as a tight end because of his physical attributes and skill set, the honors he has received, and other similar indicia are irrelevant because Section 2(a)(i) (incorporating the positions listed in Section 7(a)) prescribes an objective test that must be objectively applied. Thus, one source of ambiguity is whether the pertinent language of the CBA has a meaning that is impervious to a Franchise Player’s treatment by the Club, the NFL, other players and coaches in the NFL, and sportswriters, as well as to that player’s public self-description.
Objectively, Smith is a linebacker. He has a linebacker’s number, and he does not spend the majority of his snaps lining up with his hand on the ground. The idea of arguing for an objective test made sense with Graham — hey, he’s not lined up tight to the tackle, he’s lined up where wide receivers line up — but this may seem to undercut the NFLPA in future arguments. The top 3-4 outside linebackers are much more like defensive ends than linebackers when it comes to player value, so much so that most draftniks group all “rush” players together. But by arguing for the objective test in the Graham case, the NFLPA may be harming Smith and other 3-4 edge rushers.
- Hartsock was the top blocking tight end in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus. [↩]