Glenn Guilbeau / USA Today Sports
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans wide receiver want-to-be Jimmy Graham has been one of the more pleasant and effervescent interviews during his four-year career with the Saints.
That was not the case on Wednesday in between his position designation grievance hearing with the NFL at a hotel near the Saints’ headquarters here. Graham dismissed a reporter after a question and walked away.
The two-day hearing ended Wednesday, but a decision on exactly what position Graham will be designated as the Saints’ franchise player by NFL arbitrator Stephen Burbank is not expected until next week.
“I know he’s stressed,” Saints backup tight end Benjamin Watson said Thursday after the Saints’ final voluntary practice before training camp next month. “He’s going through a lot right now.”
At stake for Graham is approximately $5 million. If Burbank decides Graham is a tight end, Graham’s salary for 2014-15 would be $7 million, which is the average of the top five players at tight end in 2013. The average of the top five players at wide receiver, on the other hand, is $12 million, which would be Graham’s salary if he is designated as a wide receiver as he desires. Graham did line up 67 percent of the time last year in spots on the field usually populated by wide receivers, but he did tend to struggle against the cornerbacks who usually cover wide receivers as opposed to the linebackers and safeties who tend to cover tight ends.
The Saints used their exclusive franchise tag for Graham after his four-year contract expired following last season in order to stop him from entering the NFL’s free agent market, where he would have been a top target. Over the last three seasons, Graham has been one of the best tight ends and/or receivers in the NFL with 270 catches for 3,507 yards and 36 touchdowns. His 16 touchdowns last season led the NFL – regardless of position – and was more than all Saints wide receivers combined.
Jimmy Sexton, the agent for the stars including Alabama coach Nick Saban, is representing Graham in the grievance hearing and in contract talks with the Saints. The entire tight end-wide receiver debate could be ended by Sexton and the Saints if they could agree to terms that would sign Graham to a long term contract somewhere in between $7 million and $12 million.
In the meantime, Graham missed all of the Saints’ mini-camp and voluntary workouts in recent weeks.
“I’ve just been letting him know we’re here to support him as friends and teammates,” said Watson, who caught 19 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns last season. “I’ve been watching it primarily as a friend of his, rather than as another tight end. Jimmy is somebody I’ve gotten to know and spend a lot of time with over the past year, so you want things to work out in an amicable fashion for both sides. And you really want the best for him as a person.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, another wide receiver type with 93 catches and 18 touchdowns the last two seasons, is likely monitoring the Graham grievance for business reasons. He has two years remaining on a contract that will pay him $7.4 million this year, but he has told the 49ers he wants a new deal for more money.
“I mean, this is not new,” Watson said. “You’ve had guys play these types of dual roles for a long time.”
New York Jets “tight end” Rich Caster, a three-time Pro Bowler, was listed as a “wide receiver” as well during his career with the New York Jets in the 1970s, for example.
“I think it might be new in that guys are starting to get paid at tight end,” Watson said. “Obviously the salaries are going up, and this is a guy (Graham) who is making an arguable case to be paid like a wide receiver.”
Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem said more and more tight ends are playing like wide receivers. Three of the top five NFL leaders in touchdown receptions in 2013 were tight ends – Graham with 16, Davis with 13 and Denver’s Julius Thomas with 12.
“I see some who do certain things like wide receivers, and you can’t believe it,” Meachem said. “Like, how do they move like that? If Jimmy’s fighting to be a wide receiver, good for him. I just hope he gets what he deserves. He lines up as both. I say pay him as both. But I don’t have a say in it. That’s an upstairs (management) decision.”