Jimmy Graham and Rethinking NFL Positions

Its actual birthday is up for debate, but it’s safe to say the receiving tight end is firmly in middle age. The position hit 50 somewhere around 2011, half a century after Mike Ditka landed in Chicago and caught 56 passes. At the time, it was the single-season record for a tight end. He’d break it the next year. And the year after that. And then one more time. His 75-catch mark in 1964 held up for 16 seasons.

That’s the year Kellen Winslow and Don Coryell redefined what the tight end could be. Winslow caught 89 balls that year for nearly 1,300 yards. Split out like a wide receiver, used as a vertical threat, Winslow started to blur the positional lines for pass-catchers — the same lines Jimmy Graham is dealing with right now.

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If Winslow was the second generation, Graham was the third. Exactly 50 years removed from Ditka’s rookie season, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski ushered in the newest tight end era. In 2011, the pair combined for 189 catches and 2,637 yards. Both broke the receiving yards record by a tight end that Winslow set in 1980. Their emergence was a product of rule changes and resulting market inefficiencies. The middle of the field had become the NFL’s high ground, and the offenses capable of winning would have the upper hand.

How the Saints use Graham isn’t new (again, Winslow played some wide receiver, and Tony Gonzalez spent plenty of time split out). It’s just the same line of thought taken to its furthest extension. More than two-thirds of Graham’s snaps this season came out of the slot or split out wide, according to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett. It’s a discrepancy that’s particularly relevant as the battle rages on about how Graham should be classified as it relates to the franchise tag. With the Saints’ tight salary-cap situation and Graham’s status as a vital piece of their offense, it’s almost certain he’ll be tagged (teams have from yesterday until March 3 to designate their franchise player). The question is whether it will be as a tight end or wide receiver.

It’s about a $5 million question. That’s the difference between the tight end and receiver tags, both calculated by the average salary-cap percentage taken up by the tags from the previous five seasons. It’s no surprise, then, that the Saints believe Graham is a tight end. “That’s where we drafted him, that’s where we play him,” Mickey Loomis told the Times-Picayune at the Senior Bowl. “In our view he’s a tight end. That’s what makes him valuable.” The counter from Graham’s people would be that what makes Graham valuable is that he catches a lot of passes, many of them touchdowns, and he catches most of those while lining up as a wide receiver. The entire issue, along with considering just how much football and tight ends have changed from Ditka to Winslow to now, is enough to call into question how relevant position designations are across football.

This topic came up six years ago, when Terrell Suggs argued that he should be tagged as a defensive end instead of as a linebacker. Suggs’s claim is that he spent most of his snaps at end, which would come with about $800,000 more in guaranteed money. The result of the conversation, which came after meetings between the NFLPA and the NFL Management Council, was a new franchise-tag designation for a defensive end–linebacker that would split the difference between the two. If Graham does get tagged as a tight end, it’s likely that things will go one step further in mediation — a grievance filed to the league that’s heard by a neutral arbitrator.

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The incredible part of Suggs’s case is that six years and one CBA later, the designations for linebackers and defensive ends haven’t really changed, and the gap between the two tags has actually increased. It makes no sense to say that Aldon Smith and Lavonte David play the same position, but based on the designations we have, that becomes technically true in terms of compensation. The same goes for Pro Bowl and All-Pro voting, which might not mean anything, but when those types of accolades inevitably become part of cases for Hall of Fame consideration and more, maybe it should. Two years ago, the NBA eliminated the center position from its All-Star balloting. “It just seemed a little outdated and didn’t represent the way our game has evolved,” Stu Jackson, then the vice-president of basketball operations, said at the time. With the way current-day offenses and defenses work, it might be time for the NFL to consider a similar move.

The Cardinals switch between fronts often enough that John Abraham spent plenty of time as a 4-3 defensive end this year. Carolina’s base defense was more or less its nickel, which at times made Luke Kuechly’s job look a lot like Patrick Willis’s. Positions are more about role than alignment, and with that thinking, a few different designations start to emerge.

Robert Mathis and Greg Hardy — who play different positions according to the franchise tag and Pro Bowl voting — become edge rushers. Sheldon Richardson and Gerald McCoy — a defensive end and defensive tackle, respectively — are interior defenders. Kuechly and Willis are off-the-line-of-scrimmage linebackers. All of these are terms that the scouting community uses all the time, but each lends to a better understanding of how football actually works and why certain players are more important than others.

The same would go for pass-catchers on offense. Marques Colston lined up in the slot last year more often than Graham. So although Graham is more often the “wider” receiver, because he spends at least a few snaps next to a tackle, he’s somehow less valuable. That’s nonsense.

Ultimately, that’s what lies at the center of this — value. The reason a tight end makes less than a wide receiver as they’re currently defined is that wide receivers are typically perceived as being more valuable pieces of an offense. That just isn’t true anymore. Players like Graham and Gronkowski are as valuable to their teams as any non-quarterback, and the idea that Mike Wallace deserves $10.5 million more in guaranteed money than Gronkowski and his market-setting deal because Wallace is called something different and can actually do less is outdated. What the league’s best tight ends can do has outpaced how much they’re paid to do it, and if what they’re called is the reason for that, maybe it’s time for a change.

Filed Under: NFL, Jimmy Graham, Franchise Tag, Robert Mays, New Orleans Saints

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Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays

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