Yes, the Saints like the decision from arbitrator Stephen Burbank that tight end Jimmy Graham is a tight end for franchise-tag purposes. But the Saints aren’t thrilled with the way Burbank reached his conclusion.
Per a source with knowledge of the team’s position, the Saints disagree with the notion that the question of tight end vs. receiver boils down to whether the player lines up most of the time within four yards of an offensive tackle. As the Saints see it, a tight end is a tight end no matter where he lines up or how often he lines up there.
The Saints see three key factors for determining tight end status: (1) the player’s size; (2) the player’s position group for practice and meeting purposes; and (3) the manner in which the opponent defends him in man coverage.
The shifting of tight ends to the slot between the tackle and receiver and/or wide of the widest receiver has nothing to do with making the tight end into a wide receiver. Moving the tight end has one primary goal: To aid the offense’s assessment before the snap as to whether the defense has lined up in man or zone.
Because most teams defend tight ends when in man coverage with a linebacker or a safety, the use of a linebacker or a safety to cover a tight end when he’s in the slot or split wide means that the defense is showing man-to-man coverage before the snap. If the tight end lines up in the slot or wide and a cornerback lines up on him, the defense is conveying a zone look.
While exceptions exists (for example, the Patriots used cornerback Aqib Talib to cover Graham and Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in 2013), receivers are never covered by a linebacker. So if the Saints come out of the huddle and Graham splits wide on one side and he’s covered by a linebacker or a safety and not the corner that would be assigned to that side of the field in zone, the coverage is man-to-man.
In other words, the Saints believe a tight end is still a tight end even when he’s not lined up tight to the end of the line because of the way he’s defended. Which means that, in theory, Graham could split wide on every snap and remain a tight end.
The question could become a bit more complicated if Graham lines up as a wide receiver so often that teams began to defend him like a receiver. For now, though, the various looks-like-a-duck factors conclusively point to Graham being a tight end.
It’s possible, if not likely, that Burbank agreed with the concept, but that he felt compelled (as judges and arbitrators often do) to come up with a formula or to otherwise justify the decision quantitatively. Per the source, the four-yard-split concept appeared in the NFL’s pre-hearing brief, and it didn’t get much play during the two-day hearing. However, since the parties stipulated (that’s a fancy lawyer term for “agreed”) to the various percentages of times that Graham lined up tight to the tackle and within four yards of the tackle and beyond four yards of the tackle, it was easy for Burbank to add up the snaps and fashion a standard.
Which makes the decision seem a lot more arbitrary, and which could make it a little more vulnerable to reversal, if/when Graham appeals the decision.