What’s In a Name?: Jimmy Graham’s Arbitration Battle
The New Orleans Saints’ star learns the hard way that wide receivers are worth more than tight ends.
Football player Jimmy Graham and the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints agreed to terms on a new dealon July 15, 2010. At $40 million with $21 million guaranteed, the four-year deal made Graham the highest paid tight end in the League. The negotiations, however, required a complicated dance between Graham and the NFL.
The Nonexclusive Franchise Tender, the most popular compensation method and the one used in Graham’s case, takes “the average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position . . . at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year[.]”
Although discussions between the two sides were already underway, the pace quickened in February when the Saints placed the “Franchise Tag” on their star tight end. More formally known as the “Franchise Player designation,” the Franchise Tag is a complicated tool created by the League and used by NFL franchises to keep a player under contract for an additional year at a reasonable value.
The specifics of the Franchise Tag are enumerated in the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) that governs the relationship between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (“NFLPA”). Article 10 of the CBA addresses the Franchise Tag and lays out the details surrounding this useful tool. Each franchise may “designate one of its players who would otherwise be an Unrestricted Free Agent as a Franchise Player each season during the term of [the CBA].”
If a team decides to place the Franchise Tag on a player, then that team must compensate the player under the terms of Article 10 Section 2 of the CBA. Section 2 lays out two methods of compensation for players designated as Franchise Players. The Nonexclusive Franchise Tender, the most popular method and the one used in Graham’s case, takes “the average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position . . . at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year[.]”
The NFL Management Council categorized Graham as a tight end, and consequently, the Saints assigned him a $7.05 million Franchise Tag.
Without delving too deep into football terminology, it is important to note that Graham is a unique player. He plays tight end, which is a position on the offensive line that is used to either receive passes or block. Wide receivers share similar duties to tight ends. Primarily used as pass receivers, wide receivers line up at a distance from the line of scrimmage.
Unlike most tight ends, Graham is predominantly used as a receiver. In fact, he was used as a receiver so frequently in 2013 that he led all NFL players, including wide receivers, in receiving touchdowns. Graham was also fifteenth overall in receiving yards.
Graham’s impressive statistics during the 2013 season created an issue for the star player: whether he should be assigned a Franchise Tag equivalent to that of a wide receiver or a tight end. This might seem like a trivial issue at first glance, but given that the Franchise Tag assignment for a wide receiver is $12.3 million compared to just $7.05 million for a tight end, it is clear that the designation matters. The NFL Management Council categorized Graham as a tight end, and consequently, the Saints assigned him a $7.05 million Franchise Tag.
The most interesting and damaging evidence was provided by Graham’s own Twitter account, where he describes himself as “New Orleans Saints Tight End #80. Private Pilot.”
With $5 million at stake, Graham and the NFLPA filed a grievance challenging the NFL Management Council’s decision. Both sides presented their respective arguments to arbitrator Stephen Burbank.
Graham and his representation hoped for a literal construction of Article 10 Section 2(a)(i), which states that the Franchise Player designation is determined by the position “at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.” During arbitration, they argued that Graham should be categorized as a wide receiver due to the fact that he lines up where a receiver would on sixty-seven percent of plays. They referenced his career receiving statistics, specifically citing the sixteen touchdowns he caught last season.
Burbank heard evidence regarding Graham’s “roster position,” his role on the field, and his position on the line of scrimmage prior to the ball being snapped. The most interesting and damaging evidence was provided by Graham’s own Twitter account, where he described himself as “New Orleans Saints Tight End #80. Private Pilot.”
In his decision Burbank agreed that a player’s “position” is not determined by his roster designation, but rather by the role the player predominately plays on the field. He determined that Graham was lined up as a tight end “when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or ‘arm’s-length’ from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was aligned in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such lineman” (emphasis added). For the majority of plays during the 2013 season, Graham lined up within those parameters. As such, Burbank concluded that the NFL Management Council correctly labeled Graham as a tight end.
Burbank’s decision had the potential to cost Graham $5 million. However, the CBA’s Article 10 deadline requires a team to sign an athlete that they have designated as a Franchise Player to a multiyear contract or extension before 4:00 p.m. on July 15. Graham was signed to a four-year, $40 million deal, suggesting that the Franchise Tag had no effect.
Thanks to Twitter, Burbank, the CBA, and the NFL, the Saints got four more years of Jimmy Graham for $8 million dollars less than he is likely worth.
Graham’s deal is worth an average of $10 million per year. It comes as no surprise that this deal falls between the $7 million tight end and $12 million wide receiver Franchise Tag assignments.
Following several negotiations, multiple contract disputes, endless CBA analysis, one arbitration, and even some Twitter stalking, the two sides finally reached an agreement when the deadline arrived. By July 15, 2014 neither party had budged. The Saints held the power, having won at arbitration. On the other side of the negotiations was Graham, a 27-year-old tight end coming off the best year of his career and looking to cash in.
Considering that he was entering the second half of his career, Graham needed to re-sign his contract, and he did. Yet if Burbank had reached a different conclusion, Graham likely would have gotten a top-tier wide receiver’s contract, entitling him to roughly $12 million per year. Thanks to Twitter, Burbank, the CBA, and the NFL, the Saints got four more years of Jimmy Graham for $8 million dollars less than he is likely worth.