Wednesday’s results-driven ruling from arbitrator Stephen Burbank, which dubbed Jimmy Graham a tight end for franchise-tag purposes, could change the way teams handle their slot receivers. If, based on Burbank’s reasoning, a player lines up within four yards of a tackle, he can be regarded as a tight end, not a receiver.
While it would be a little obvious for teams to suddenly change the position of a player approaching free agency from receiver to tight end, smart teams will start calling slot receivers “tight ends” from the get-go. If those players are consistently described and treated as tight ends — and if they line up more times within four yards of the tackle than anywhere else — a slot receiver who plays really well and becomes a free agent could be retained via the far cheaper tight end franchise tender.
The possibility of shenanigans makes the creation of a new category under the franchise and transition tag even more important. While still generically a tight end or a receiver, a player who consistently lines up neither wide to the sideline nor tight to the tackle plays a position that has a value falling between tight end and wide receiver. So whether it’s Graham or Amendola or Anquan Boldin or anyone else, a franchise tag that reflects the actual value of the hybrid role is needed.