Jimmy Graham debate tough to predict

METAIRIE, La. -- We’re now one week away from the deadline for NFL teams to place the franchise tag on players. So sometime between now and March 3, the great debate over whether the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham should be considered a tight end or wide receiver will officially kick off.

I checked in recently with NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt -- a former executive with the Green Bay Packers and a former agent -- to see if he had any inkling how that debate might play out. Like most everyone else on the subject, Brandt said it’s too hard to predict what an arbitrator might rule.

“It’s new to me, too,” said Brandt, who pointed out that his former team had a similar case after he left with tight end Jermichael Finley in 2012 -- and they agreed to a meet-in-the-middle compromise before their debate reached an arbitrator.

Brandt said he could understand the argument for calling Graham a receiver by strictly reading the language of the collective bargaining agreement, which says the franchise tag designation is based on the position “at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.” Graham lined up 33 percent of the time against the line last year, 45 percent of the time in the slot and 22 percent of the time out wide.

But Brandt said he also believes the Saints have a strong argument that Graham's versatile role matches the modern job description of a tight end.

“It’s more about the definition of the tight end in 2013 than where he lines up on every play,” Brandt said. “So that’s gonna be interesting.”

If Graham is considered a tight end, the Saints can maintain his rights by offering him a one-year franchise-tag salary that is projected to be around $6.8 million this year. However, Graham’s camp is expected to file a grievance through the NFL Players Association, asking a third-party arbitrator to rule that he should be considered a wide receiver instead. That would require a one-year franchise-tag salary of around $11.6 million.

That's a significant difference. But Brandt said the bigger issue is how the franchise tag will affect the negotiations on a long-term contract.

“Listen, the way I see this whole thing is the tag number is a temporary dispute. The real issue here is the long-term deal,” Brandt said. “And when you negotiate a long-term deal, like any negotiation, you come up with comparables. To me the bigger issue here is not the tag, but when they are negotiating, are they using (the contracts of tight ends) Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates? Or are they using (receivers) like Larry Fitzgerald and Percy Harvin? That’s the question I have. I think the tag issue is kind of a red herring issue.”

Gronkowski is the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, with an average salary of $9 million per year -- ahead of guys like Jason Witten, Davis and Gates, who earn a little more than $7 million per year. Conversely, the NFL’s four highest-paid receivers (including Fitzgerald and Harvin) earn at least $12 million per year.

Brandt said a favorable ruling on the franchise tag would certainly give one side a great deal of leverage in the long-term negotiations.

Either way, though, Brandt believes the franchise tag itself is a great leverage tool for all NFL teams.

“I think the franchise tag, even at the high level, is an incredible management weapon,” Brandt said. “It takes your best free agent off the market. And you get to June or July and guys looking at a one-year deal or whatever you want to offer long term. People look at the franchise tag as just about holding a guy for a year. I think the bigger issue is giving you leverage in negotiations.”

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