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Graham was flexed often in 2013

Graham was flexed often in 2013.

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 [1981] 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.

  1. Hartsock was the top blocking tight end in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus. []
  • Anders

    One thing about this where I thought the Saints was right but it was ignored completely in the ruling was how Graham was defended.

    Graham was mainly covered by Safeties and LBs. That is the value Graham brings, he brings value because a team has to decided how the defend him in terms of LB vs S vs CB. A team either go Dime against the Saints 11 personnel and then risk the Saints just running down their throat or they can go nickle and risk having a LB asked to cover Graham.

    Also Graham was lined up closer to the formation and asked to block more than any “normal” WR, which is again the value Graham brings.

    • Chase Stuart

      I’m not quite sure that I want to label a player by how the defense guards him. If teams put a linebacker on Graham and then he beats him badly for a 15-yard gain, I don’t see why that should be a “negative” for purposes of Graham’s value. Part of the issue here is just giving any player who is the top player at his position the value of the average of the top 5 players at his position, because Graham is always going to feel underpaid. That’s even more significant at a position like TE.

      According to Pro Footbal Focus, Graham blocked on 4.9% of his pass plays. Now Colston/Stills/Moore blocked on 0% of their pass plays, but I don’t know how significant 4.9% really is. Also worth noting is that for whatever reason, the Saints actually took Graham off the field a bit on running plays. For example, Graham had a few more snaps than Colston, but Colston run-blocked on 18 more plays. And Stills had roughly the same number of plays he run-blocked as Graham, yet Stills had about 65 fewer snaps.

      • Anders

        I actually think Graham’s value is greater than the TE FA tag because of his ability to be split out wide and defenses then has to account for that.

        In essence there is two types of TEs and their value is just as different than the difference between a slot wr and the outside guys. Just look at the salary of two of the best slot WRs in Welker and Cruz and then compare their salary to what even average outside guys get.

        The F TE like Graham has so much value for a team in terms of matchup problems that they should be paid more than the more traditional Y TE

      • Andy Barall

        “for whatever reason, the Saints actually took Graham off the field a bit on running plays.”

        Why? Because Graham’s a terrible point-of-attack run blocker. That’s why the Saints, as much as possible, minimize his role in the running game.

        Graham’s entirely a positional blocker. That is, he attempts to use his frame to shield the defender. He gets no movement on the line of scrimmage, he has poor positional follow-through, and he doesn’t sustain his blocks.

        For about a third of his snaps, Graham is in the attached position, next to the offensive tackle, right or left, in a right-handed three point stance. If he’s in the attached position, and the Saints run the ball, they usually do so away from Graham, to the other side. About four or five times a game they would run to Graham’s side so as to avoid providing the defense with an obvious tendency. This is how Mike Shanahan used Shannon Sharpe, another poor blocker, in Denver in the late ’90s. When the Broncos ran to the strong side they frequently replaced Sharpe with Dwayne Carswell, a much better blocker. The Saints used Ben Watson in that role last season.

        The Saints also replaced Graham if they were trying to sell the defense on the run to set up the play-action pass. Last year, they did this frequently on the first play after a change of possession.

        Jimmy Graham is a liability in the running game. His value is derived exclusively as an integral part of their passing game.

  • I always thought PFF’s use of “edge rusher” and “interior lineman” was a fine distinction. It separates guys like Aldon Smith from guys like Thomas Davis, and guys like Sheldon Richardson from guys like Robert Quinn. That still does nothing for the WR-TE confusion.

    Trying to assign a special position name to Graham as a receiving TE is sorta weird to me…it is basically trying to award him for being a bad blocker. What about guys like Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski who can put up great numbers and block many ends one on one?

    • Chase Stuart

      Yeah, that is a bit of a weird situation where Graham is trying to be rewarded for not being a great blocker. That said, I think the NFLPA failed by allowing WRs and TEs to be split for franchise tag purposes. Of course, the NFLPA is more concerned with helping out the bottom 20% of players than the occasional superstar offensive position player.

      • James

        Well of course! Those 20% of players get 20% of the union’s vote, despite getting probably 5% of the snaps and impact and salary!

  • norman Rockwell

    The positional designations for franchiser tags are a mistake for reasons stated in article. However, the positions are descriptions of where a player aligns himself on the field. Tight end aligns himself tight to the end if the OL. WRS are out wide, defensive lineman are on DL, linebackers are back off the line, etc.

    The most reasonable solution to me is assigning a player a % of value of each position by usage, I.e. Graham could be used as a WR 60% of time and TE 40% so he gets 60% of WR franchise tag plus 40% of TE money.

    Aldon Smith is a nominal LB but he is on the defensive line for X amount so he’s a defensive lineman for X% plus a linebacker for the Y% of snaps he’s back off the line.

    • Arif Hasan

      Linearity is a fine solution, but the arbitrator was limited by what the CBA is allowed. I do not think the NFL would be happy with anyone creating “new law” for something agreed-upon like that.

      Also, that creates the problem of iteration. What if the top receivers spend some percentage of their time in the backfield, in a “nasty” split or in the slot? X% of a receiver is interesting for a single case, but you have to keep iterating. Calvin Johnson is paid a lot of money and lines up out wide and in the slot a certain percentage of the time. Do you assume that his pay is split among those percentages (say his $13.1M cap hit is split so that 26.9% allocated to the slot and 72.1% allocated out wide)? If so, then the “best” slot receiver is worth the exact same as the “best” outside receiver. If you reject that conclusion (most would), then his “worth” (pay) is split differently than how often he aligns at a spot, which means you have a lot of floating variables.

      I’m sure linear algebra can solve this problem, but it would not be fun to figure out the franchise values for splits like that.

      • You would have a very tough time figuring out salaries in that manner and as you said most would disagree with what would be the outcome. In general teams pay for expectations, demand and uniqueness at the position. The harder you are to replace the more money you make. This is why there has, in the last 5 years, been such a big distinction between outside WR salaries (in general $11-$12 million for top players) and slot WRs (in general less than $9 million at the peak). Slot players are considered more interchangeable and less unique than players who have that ability to line up outside, fight off a physical corner and go out deep or up in the air and get the ball.

        I think Victor Cruz is the perfect example of why Jimmy Graham was going to have a difficult time finding max money at the WR level. Cruz has plenty of shortcomings but put up numbers that were better than the Dwayne Bowes and Mike Wallaces of the world. Cruz was unique and there were solid expectations for him, but the demand for such a player, at least at a high salary is low. Not many teams run an offense where they have a slot WR that is a home run hitter and doesnt have the best hands in the world. This is also why Wes Welker found no suitors since almost no team runs a high percentage of plays through the slot which is what his overall results were dependent on in New England. Cruz signed for $8.6 million and Welker just $6.

        Graham is unique and the expectations would be great but how many teams will tailor an offense to a home run hitting Tight End? How many teams will throw the ball as often as the Saints throw the ball? The answer is not many. I think Graham just wasted a ton of time instead of working on convincing one of those teams that does need him, particularly the team he is on, that he is worth x amount more than Rob Gronkowski. Even if he was considered a wide receiver for salary purposes basically all people involved were comparing him to a slot receiver. Its the same financial playing field as a tight end. Maybe there was a team out there, like the Seahawks with Percy Harvin, that would have given him an outlandish contract but his odds were better of working things out with New Orleans than essentially going in circles with this.

        • Richie

          I think Graham just wasted a ton of time

          I don’t know about “wasted”. I think this was low-risk, high-reward. I don’t know how much time he personally spent on this, but it could have earned him an additional $5M this year. What could he have been doing instead to convince a team he is worth more than Rob Gronkowski?

  • Ty

    The arbitrator should have split the difference between the TE tag and the WR tag (I think that would make Graham receive 9.5 million). This issue is only the beginning and definitely won’t go away (not just for Graham), as you said.

    This player has already received his contract, but a guy like Kam Chancellor might be able to argue that he is a linebacker (I think he spends a majority of his snaps similar to where a 3-4 WILB or a 4-3 OLB would).

  • norman Rockwell

    Does the franchise tag differentiate between outside and slot WRs?

    My point was that the position names for the franchise tag are based mostly on where a player is aligned to start the play and less so on the role they play. So using alignment more than role is the best way to implement a bad system (defining player positions)

    • James

      Franchise tag treats all linemen the same, so of course it doesn’t deviate between slot and wide receivers.

  • Tony “HOF” Eason

    Quoting O Dub Holmes? What are you, a lawyer?

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