Jimmy Graham signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the New Orleans Saints this week, ESPN reports. With the deal, the 27-year old immediately becomes the NFL's highest paid tight end, and its seventh richest receiver by average annual salary. Assuming he doesn't blow his millions, Graham should be financially secure for the rest of his life. But that doesn't mean his new contract is fair.
Graham is an elite receiver
Graham's career numbers indicate he's not just one of the NFL's best tight ends, he's one of its best receivers, period. Since 2011, Graham leads all pass-catchers in receiving touchdowns, and is in the top five in receptions and first downs. As I explained in January, there are two main arguments supporting Graham's classification as a wide receiver.
First, and most obviously, the Saints use him like one. In 2013, he was targeted on 18.8% of his snaps, first among both tight ends and wideouts in the NFL. Behind Graham on this list were four wide receivers: Pierre Garcon, Andre Johnson, Antonio Brown, and Dez Bryant. Further, Graham lined up in the slot and out wide on 67% of his snaps, while spending just 33% of his plays as a traditional tight end, ESPN Stats & Information reports.
Also important is the fact that Graham's upside bests most other wideouts. "The combined output of his 2013 totals -- 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns," I wrote earlier this year, "rank better than the single-season highs of nine of the NFL's 10 highest paid wide receivers." The lone exception is the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson, who notched an unparalleled 1,681/16 line in 2011. Johnson makes an average of about $16 million a year -- a 60% premium to Graham's contract.
Perhaps more egregiously, Graham's annual take of $10 million is almost 10% less than what the game's nine other highest paid wide receivers make, on average. Whether it's Dwayne Bowe, who will make $12 million this season, or Mike Wallace and his $15 million base in 2014, Graham is more accomplished than even this elite group.
Why wasn't he awarded wide receiver status?
Thus, the obvious question. Graham's latest contract with the Saints is predicated on the this month's NFL arbitration ruling that officially declared him to be a tight end. In May, Graham filed a grievance with the league, claiming he deserved the wide receiver franchise tag -- which pays $12.3 million -- instead of the $7 million tight end tag.
While the Saints' deal pays him in the middle range of these two figures, there's reason to believe Graham should have won the wide receiver franchise tag. According to multiple sources, the fact that he meets and practices with Saints tight ends, and lists himself as a tight end on Twitter, worked against him in the arbitration ruling. And as ESPN points out, teams' preference to defend Graham like a tight end might have been the final blow to Graham's grievance.
The bottom line
All three points are technically correct. But neither should outweigh the two more important facts mentioned above: Jimmy Graham is used like a wide receiver, and performs better than most of the best players at the position. Although he's set for an enormous payday over the next four seasons, a case can be made that Graham deserves a richer contract, somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million to $12 million a year.
On a broader scale, it's time for the NFL to reconsider how franchise tag values are assigned to wide receivers and tight ends. Graham is just one example of the latter behaving like the former. Talented young players like the Cleveland Browns' Jordan Cameron and the Denver Broncos' Julius Thomas are a couple more pros who may face similar classification issues in the future, and the league needs to get those right.