It almost happened between the Packers and Jermichael Finley. It would have happened between the Titans and Jared Cook.
It’s finally happening between the Saints and Jimmy Graham.
Tight end or receiver for franchise-tag purposes has become the question at a grievance hearing that commenced on Tuesday, with nearly $5.3 million hanging in the balance in 2014 base salary. That difference quickly becomes much greater on a long-term contract, if the starting point is $7.035 million this year (the tight end tag) or $12.3 million (the receiver tag).
The best move for both sides would be to find a way to close the gap before a ruling, like the Ravens did six years ago with Terrell Suggs. Tagged as a linebacker, Suggs argued that he was a defensive end. A compromise was reached.
This time around, the gulf between the two tags is much greater, which leads to a greater possibility for hard feelings if team and player continue to dig in on what necessarily is, without an agreement, an all-or-nothing gamble.
The Saints possibly are banking on Graham looking for a way out, since it doesn’t seem to be in his DNA to cause trouble. Eligible for a new deal since after the 2011 season (the old CBA allowed renegotiations following two years in the league), Graham said nothing as tight ends like oft-injured Rob Gronkowski and oft-accused-of-murder Aaron Hernandez received enormous paydays without having to complete their rookie contracts.
Graham is now being painted by many as greedy, but that’s an incorrect characterization. Owners became owners via the principles of capitalism, and Graham has the ability to capitalize on vague language in the CBA that the NFL didn’t try to tidy up when the current contract between management and labor was finalized. Graham’s argument that he lined up more as a receiver than tight end finds fuel in the plain language of the controlling document, and he has every right to make the argument that, by not lining up tight to the end more time than he lined up as a receiver, he should be paid as a receiver for franchise-tag purposes.
Two years ago, quarterback Drew Brees made a far more esoteric argument in his own grievance against the Saints regarding whether he’d get a 44-percent raise or a 20-percent raise if the tag was used in 2013. No one accused him of being greedy, even though he unexpectedly won the argument and secured the leverage to get a deal from the organization that averages $20 million annually.
Graham is behaving no differently. Win or lose, it’s smart for him to push the issue. It would have been smarter for the NFL and NFLPA to address this loophole in the most recent CBA. It could be the smartest for the Saints and Graham to use the uncertainty of the pending outcome as the vehicle for working out an agreement that will keep Graham in New Orleans for years to come.