Now that the Saints have applied the franchise tag to tight end Jimmy Graham, plenty of things can happen over the next four months or so.
Here are 10 things to know about the situation, which could get more and more interesting as time goes by.
1. The Saints don’t designate the position.
Despite reports suggesting that the Saints would be tagging Graham as a tight end, the Saints simply apply the tag generically. The NFL Management Council will determine whether to apply the $7.035 million tight end franchise tender or the far more lucrative $12.315 million receiver franchise tender.
The difference amounts to $5.28 million on a one-year deal.
2. Graham believes he’s a receiver.
If the Management Council gives Graham the designation that meshes with the position he officially plays, Graham and the NFLPA will file an immediate grievance. The dispute will be resolved by a System Arbitrator, subject to review by the three-member Appeals panel.
3. The labor deal controls the decision.
Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement explains that the tender will be issued for “the position . . . at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.”
A literal application of that language requires a simple counting of the plays in which Graham lined up as a tight end, and the plays during which he lined up as a receiver. There’s no dispute that Graham lined up in the slot or split wide more times than he lined up next to a tackle.
4. The Saints’ argument will be rooted in common sense.
The Saints will argue that tight ends routinely line up in various spots, and that since the tight end is the only player that ever lines up next to the tackle, the fact that Graham lined up at least one third of the time next to the tackle makes him a tight end.
The dispute will hinge on whether the System Arbitrator regards a tight end lining up in the slot or splitting wide as participating in the resulting play as a tight end or as a receiver.
5. The dispute can be resolved at any time.
Even though the Saints have applied the franchise tag to Graham, the Saints and Graham can reach an agreement that resolves the looming dispute, either through a multi-year deal or a one-year agreement that, for example, splits the $5.28 million difference.
The next logical deadline for working out a deal comes before the ruling is issued by the System Arbitrator. That’s what happened in 2008, when the Ravens designated Terrell Suggs as a linebacker and he argued that he’s actually a defensive end.
By not resolving the issue before applying the tag, the Saints risk Graham deciding to dig in his heels and not reach a compromise, forcing a decision that will result in a $5.28 million swing on a one-year deal.
6. Graham could argue that the tag should be eliminated.
Even though the Saints didn’t designate a position when applying the franchise tag, Graham and the NFLPA can argue that the NFL’s Management Council gets only one opportunity to select the correct application of the tag — and that the failure to pick the right position invalidates the tag.
If successful, Graham could become a free agent. While that outcome is highly unlikely, nothing stops Graham from making the argument.
7. A precedent could be set for other tight ends.
If Graham’s situation results in a decision from the System Arbitrator, the outcome will provide guidance to all other teams and players facing a similar situation in the future.
If Graham and the Saints strike a deal that makes a ruling unnecessary, it would be prudent for the NFL and the NFLPA to clarify the tight end/receiver distinction in the Collective Bargaining Agreement moving forward. Otherwise, this potential issue will continue to arise.
8. Graham’s official position would not be changed.
If Graham prevails on his argument that he’s a receiver for franchise tag purposes, his official position wouldn’t change. He’d continue to be listed as a tight end, he’d continue to attend tight end meetings, and (perhaps most importantly) he’d still be a tight end for fantasy football purposes.
9. July 15 remains an important date.
Regardless of how the franchise-tag categorization is resolved, the Saints and Graham would have until July 15 to strike a long-term deal. After July 15, only a one-year deal can be signed. Which would put Graham on track for becoming a free agent again in 2015.
If Graham wins the grievance and secures designation as a receiver, it won’t matter where he lines up in 2014. If tagged in 2015, he’d be entitled to a 20-percent raise over the receiver franchise tender.
10. Graham could choose to go year to year.
Whether Graham wins or loses the looming grievance, he could elect to not do a long-term deal, opting instead to retain the injury risk and play one year at a time. He’d receive a 20-percent raise in 2015 if tagged again, and then a 44-percent raise in 2016 or the quarterback franchise tender, whichever is greater.
If Graham is deemed to be a receiver for franchise-tag purposes, Graham would be entitled to $14.77 million in 2015 and $21.275 million in 2016.
That’s a three-year haul of $48.357 million.
So, yes, that $5.28 million question can result in all sorts of outcomes, including Graham making more than $45 million more over the next three NFL seasons than the $3.3 million he received in his first four years in the league.