The New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham is on the cusp of a multi-million dollar payday, but the dollar amount will depend on one thing: if he's viewed as a tight end or a wide receiver. Although the answer seems simple -- Graham was drafted as a tight end and has made two Pro Bowls as one -- there's overwhelming evidence he may be a wideout in disguise.
Why it matters
Answering this question is important for a few reasons, and they all hinge on Graham's pending free agency. With his rookie contract expiring this offseason, the Saints have a couple of ways to keep Graham in black and gold next year.
They could either use their franchise tag, an annual "Get Out of Jail Free" card that allows each NFL team to keep a free agent one extra year (for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player's position), or the team could sign Graham to a long-term contract. Both options would pay more if he's designated as a wide receiver.
Consider the NFL's franchise tag requirements from last season:
|2013 Franchise Tag Requirements, Offense|
|Position||Single-season salary in millions|
A franchise tagged wide receiver made over $4 million more in salary than a franchise tagged-tight end in 2013, and on average, the same disparity is present when comparing contract size.
|2013 Average Salary|
|Highest paid TEs in millions||Highest paid WRs in millions|
|Jason Witten||$7.4||Calvin Johnson||$16.2|
|Vernon Davis||$7.3||Larry Fitzgerald||$16.1|
|Antonio Gates||$7.2||Mike Wallace||$12.0|
|Jared Cook||$7.0||Dwayne Bowe||$11.2|
|Jermichael Finley||$7.0||Vincent Jackson||$11.1|
No matter what route the Saints choose, Graham will likely be paid more if he's thought of as a wide receiver.
Does he deserve to be?
Searching for an answer
The numbers say yes. In terms of usage, the Saints treat him like a wideout because of how often he's targeted by Drew Brees, his quarterback.
|Percentage of Snaps Player Was Targeted in 2013, WRs and TEs*|
When he was on the field, Graham was thrown to more often than any other tight end or wideout in the league. On average, a top NFL tight end is thrown to about 10% of his snaps, versus 14% for a top wideout. This list is usually dominated by wide receivers -- the next most used tight end after Graham is Jordan Cameron at No. 17.
Additionally, Graham is positioned on the field as a receiver more often than as a tight end, further muddying the equation. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he lined up 291 times this year as an in-line tight end (33%), 395 times in the slot (45%), and 191 times out wide (22%). As ESPN reported, Graham's agent, Jimmy Sexton, would likely argue that Graham should be tagged as a receiver since he spent 67% of his snaps lined up in traditional receiver positions. The Saints would likely counter that's just the changing nature of the tight end position.
Graham's heavy presence in the Saints' passing game, not to mention that flexibility, has also made him one of the most effective receivers in football, regardless of position.
|Jimmy Graham Ranks Since 2011|
|Stat||Among TEs||Among WRs|
Any new contract should not only make Graham the richest tight end in the NFL, but his play suggests he should be paid as a top five wide receiver. Peers like Vincent Jackson or Dwayne Bowe -- each makes a little over $11 million per season -- come to mind.
In terms of sheer potential, Graham fits the profile of a wideout as well. The combined output of his 2013 totals -- 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns -- rank better than the single-season highs of nine of the NFL's 10 highest paid wide receivers. The only one better? Calvin Johnson and his 2011 campaign.
On average, this top 10 makes $11.5 million per season, and there's a clear case Graham has more upside than almost all of them.
What does the future hold?
I could go on and on with the numbers, but my point is simple: Jimmy Graham should not only be given the best tight end contract in the league, he deserves to be paid like a top five wideout as well. Given the salaries of his peers, a reasonable yearly average is between $10 million and $11 million.
If the Saints do use the franchise tag, Graham's usage statistics indicate he merits consideration as a wide receiver, which would likely pay him a one-year value of at least $10 million. A worst-case scenario, in which Graham is tagged as a tight end, would likely discount his abilities by as much as 40%. USA Today thinks such an action could result in a "fight between both parties," and adds, "the most likely solution would be some sort of compromise."
Does this mean Graham would settle for $8 million or $9 million a year?
There's no way to know, but if I were the New Orleans front office, I'd avoid free agency at all costs. If Graham ever does hit the open market, someone will be willing to pay him the eight-figure annual salary he deserves, so anything less than that is a steal.