If/when the Saints apply the franchise tag to tight end Jimmy Graham and if/when (when) Graham instantly challenges the notion that he’s a tight end, the pin will be pulled on a grenade with shrapnel that can fly in many different directions.
Ultimately, the outcome could be that Graham is an unrestricted free agent.
The labor deal, which establishes the rules for applying the franchise tag, doesn’t address the consequences for erroneous use of it. It means that the third-party charged with resolving the dispute would have to determine the specific outcome.
The Saints surely would assume they’d be able to instantly adjust the franchise tender from tight end to receiver, if the grievance results in a finding that the strict letter of the labor deal will be applied as written, with a raw count of snaps determining Graham lined up more as a receiver than as a tight end.
But what if Graham argues that the inappropriate tender should simply be rejected? If the window for applying the tag has closed, then the Saints wouldn’t be able to reissue the tag to Graham as a receiver. Graham would then become an unrestricted free agent.
For that reason alone, it could make sense for the Saints to apply the franchise tag now, with both player and team seeking an expedited ruling on the issue so that the Saints could have a pre-March 3 Mulligan if Graham wins.
Alternatively, the Saints could craft the tender in a way that doesn’t specifically tag Graham as a “tight end,” deferring instead to the terms of the labor deal that determine the position (and level) at which the tender should occur. That approach, however, would give even more credence to the idea that the proper tag is determining by counting snaps. If snaps are counted, Graham (who took only 33 percent of his 2013 snaps lined up tight to the tackle) would be more likely to win.
Faced with the possibility, slim as it may be, that Graham could get to the open market unfettered by the franchise tag, paying Graham at the receiver level would be preferred, even if the difference is more than $4.5 million on a one-year deal.
The other potential outcome would be to simply sign Graham to a long-term deal and avoid a fight that could result in the Saints losing a lot of money — or that could result in the Saints losing Graham.