Tom Pelissero / USA Today
The fight over Jimmy Graham's position has begun in earnest.
The NFL Players Association has filed a grievance on Graham's behalf, arguing the franchise tag the New Orleans Saints placed on him in February should pay him like a wide receiver, not a tight end, a person close to Graham told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.
The grievance was filed after months of talks about a long-term extension failed to yield a deal, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The difference between the franchise tender amounts is nearly $5.3 million, with the tight end tag worth $7.035 million — the amount of the tender Graham has not signed — and the receiver tag worth $12.312 million.
If the sides can't reach a settlement or otherwise resolve their differences, Graham's case would be heard by a third-party arbitrator, and the decision surely would affect leverage in negotiations on a long-term deal. No hearing date has been set, the person said.
Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) of the collective bargaining agreement states: "The Nonexclusive Franchise Tender shall be a one year NFL Player Contract for (A) the average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position (within the categories set forth in Section 7(a) below) at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year …"
The grievance argues Graham, 27, participated in more snaps last season as a receiver than a tight end. The Saints are expected to counter the tight end position in their offense is heavily "flexed" and thus Graham remains a tight end even though he often detaches from the formation.
Graham wasn't on-hand when the Saints began their voluntary offseason workout program last month. Saints quarterback Drew Brees — who sat out the 2012 offseason due to his own franchise tag fight — said in March he had "no doubt" Graham would be on the field for Week 1.
"Listen, I know Jimmy will be ready to play, whether that means he's coming in tomorrow, April 21st or August 21st," Brees said then. "I know Jimmy Graham will be ready to play, and he'll be a big part of our offense and a big part of our team for a long time. I'm very confident that will work out."
Baltimore Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs made a similar challenge to his designation six years ago, though the difference in money was far less. The Ravens gave him the $8.065 million linebacker tender, rather than the $8.879 million defensive end tender. A settlement created a new, hybrid franchise designation and increased Suggs' one-year take to $8.475 million.
The Saints want to re-sign Graham, who has 301 catches for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns in four NFL seasons, to a long-term deal. The fight over his position figures to play a role in those negotiations, given the going rate for receiver contracts is higher than that for tight ends.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million contract extension in 2012 that remains the gold standard for that position. By comparison, receivers Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald have deals averaging more than $16 million.
With Graham counting $7.035 million under the tight end tender, the Saints were about $3.45 million under the 2014 salary cap as of Monday morning, per NFLPA records.