Arbitrator Stephen Burbank has issued his decision regarding the Jimmy Graham grievance. Ultimately, four yards of turf saved $5.3 million for the Saints.
Burbank, finding the plain language of the labor deal not plain enough to allow him to determine whether lining up in the slot makes a player a receiver or a tight end, drew an unofficial line between the tackle and the sideline.
When Graham lined up within four yards of the tackle, Graham was still a tight end. When he lined up more than four yards away from the tackle, he was a receiver.
“I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or ‘arm’s-length’ from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such linemen,” Burbank wrote in the 14-page, single-spaced decision obtained by PFT. Because Graham lined up in either of those two ways more than half the time in 2013, Burbank concluded that Graham is a tight end for purposes of the franchise tag.
So why did Burbank draw a line in the slot? Burbank concluded that, within the distance of four yards, a tight end can perform any of his three primary roles: blocking on running plays, blocking on passing plays, and running pass routes.
The somewhat arbitrary distance crafted by the arbitrator feels like an effort to reach the result that Burbank believed to be the fair result, based on evidence that the Saints scouted and drafted Graham as a tight end, that Graham calls himself a tight end, that he made the Pro Bowl as a tight end, and that he generally is a tight end. Unable to easily tuck the snaps taken in the slot into either the tight end or receiver bucket, Burbank crafted a dividing line that put enough snaps in the tight end category.
Right or wrong, Burbank’s decision becomes the law of the NFL land unless and until it’s reversed on appeal. And the appeal will become moot if the Saints sign Graham to a long-term deal — or if another team swoops in and signs him to an offer sheet that the Saints won’t or can’t match.