As NFL franchise tag season is upon us, the one player likely to get 'the tag' is New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. The Saints will have until March 3rd to tag Jimmy Graham if they aren't able to sign him to a longer term deal. The estimated cost of using the franchise tag on Graham as a tight end is $6.8 million, compared to $11.6 million if he was treated as a wide receiver.
If he is tagged, he will almost certainly file a grievance to try and get wide receiver money. You can't blame Graham for trying to get the money, a $5 million gap is huge. But to quote Saints general manager Mickey Loomis in a Times-Picayune interview, "In our view he's a tight end. That's what makes him valuable", he adds "That's where we drafted him, that's where we play him".
According to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett, roughly 2/3rds of Graham's snaps came from the slot or wide out this season...not next to an offensive tackle (where traditional TEs line up). Has the tight end position changed? Most decades had offensive anomalies at the TE position. The 1960s had Mike Ditka, the 80s had Kellen Winslow Sr and Todd Christensen, the 90s had Shannon Sharpe, and more recently it's been Tony Gonzalez and a whole host of players who contribute more offensively than tight ends ever have.
Since 2011, when Graham had his breakout season, it's difficult to argue that he's a Top 5 wide receiver in the league. He is absolutely one of the top tight-ends in the league on a statistical basis, but using the franchise tag entitles a player to the average salary of the Top 5 players at that position. The grid below ranks the best statistical seasons for receivers since the 2011 season. Aside from touchdown catches, Graham doesn't rank as a top 20 receiver season in efficiency stats.
There's no doubting that Jimmy Graham is the 2nd most valuable player to the Saints behind Drew Brees. His statistics match some of the best tight end seasons we've ever seen, including the likes of Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez. But he is not a top 5 wide receiver in the league, and the Saints shouldn't be forced to pay him that kind of money.
Unfortunately this is the flaw in the franchise tag era, players, penalties, offensive game plans, and positions evolve...their names don't.