The New Orleans Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham were the main players in his grievance hearing, but they were far from the only interested parties.
In a decision that has wide-ranging implications for the league, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled Wednesday that Graham is, for the purposes of the franchise-tag designation, a tight end.
On the surface, the question which Burbank answered seemed simple: tight end or wide receiver?
But when money is involved, nothing is simple.
And for Graham, the grievance was strictly about money, a fact Burbank noted in his ruling. Had he been designated as a receiver, the franchise tag would have been worth $12.13 million. Now that he's been ruled a tight end, it's worth $7.05 million.
The NFL collective bargaining agreement defines a franchise-tag designee’s position as that “at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year."
Graham, who was represented by the NFL Players Association at the June 17-18 hearing, argued that because he lined up out wide or in the slot 67 percent of the snaps last season, he should be classified as a receiver.
What was ambiguous, though, is whether that fact indeed qualified him as such.
In the ruling, Burbank was able to sift through the nuanced testimony regarding the definition of the tight end "position," and agreed with the NFL’s Management Council and the Saints.
Bolstering the team’s position was testimony from coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and former Colts general manager Bill Polian.
In the ruling Burbank wrote:
-- "Central to the NFLPA's contention that Mr. Graham was not participating in plays as a tight end when he was aligned more than two yards from the nearest lineman, as also to Mr. Graham's testimony, is the argument that any greater distance eliminates the potential of the player to serve one or more of the three roles that a tight end may perform on a given play: run-blocking, pass-protecting, and route-running."
-- "There is nothing in any definition of a "tight end" I have seen that confines his blocking universe to defensive linemen. In any event, viewing video of a play, Mr. Graham acknowledged that he blocked a defensive end from a split of between two and four yards.
"Again, the NFL Rulebook contemplates a tight end blocking a defensive player from an alignment two and one-half yards off tackle. Moreover, the evidence supports the finding that even a player split five yards from the nearest offensive lineman can be an effective down blocker, at least if, in response to the dilemma caused by the split, a linebacker moves half way toward that player.
"Finally, I reject the notion that it is not 'possible for a player to play the position of tight end if there's no possibility of him pass protecting for the quarterback.' As Coach Payton observed, '[t]he idea that the tight end potentially on any play could run-block, pass-block, or go out for a pattern is mythical.' "
Additionally, the ruling cites the fact that Graham has always referred to himself as a tight end. Moreover, the league, his agents and the media do so as well.
--The Saints have always listed Mr. Graham as a tight end on their roster, and he has always been part of the Saints' tight end position group, which has its own pre-season conditioning test, coach, and position manual. When Saints players meet or practice by position group, the tight ends do so separately from wide receivers, and tight ends and wide receivers are separately evaluated by their respective position coaches at the end of each season.
-- "Mr. Graham refers to himself as a tight end in social media that he controls (Twitter and Facebook), and his agents do so as well. The NFL listed Mr. Graham as a tight end in the material distributed to guide Pro Bowl balloting for the 2013 League Year by players and coaches, and he was elected as a tight end for 2013, as he had been for 2011.In addition, other post-season honors that Mr. Graham has received (e.g., 2013 Associated Press NFL All-Pro; 2013 Professional Football Writers of America All-NFL; 2013 Sporting News NFL All-Pro) have been as a tight end."
Graham now has 10 days to file an appeal, which, according the CBA, would be heard by a three-person panel.
In a written statement, the NFLPA said it will review the Burbank's decision, advise Graham of his options and "carefully determine next steps in this matter.”
The two sides have until the league’s July 15 deadline to work out a long-term deal, after which Graham can either accept the franchise tender or sit out next season.
What doesn't change with the ruling is Graham's value to organization. He has clearly been one of the league’s best receivers at any position over his first four years, totaling 301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns.
So while the Saints now have some leverage in the ongoing contract negotiations, just how much remains unclear. The club does have the ability to tag Graham again in 2015 at $8.46 million. What it doesn’t want to do is alienate him.
The ruling makes it doubtful the two sides reach a long-term deal that will pay Graham at least $12 million per year. However, he could still become the league’s highest paid tight end and first $10 million per year player at the position. New England’s Rob Gronkowski, who signed a six-year deal in 2012 worth roughly $9 million per year, is currently the league’s highest paid tight end.
For the league's 32 teams and its growing number of hybrid players, the ruling will certainly affect their future contract negotiations.
San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis has skipped offseason workouts with the hopes of getting a new contract. He says he's outplayed the five-year, $37 million deal he signed in 2010. Elsewhere, Denver tight end Julius Thomas, who's in the final year of his rookie contract, said he was closely watching the Graham ruling. Both are among the league's growing number of tight ends who have helped to evolve the position into the integral part of the passing game it is today.