The Jimmy Graham vs New Orleans Saints saga met a possible conclusion today when the case’s arbitrator, Stephen Burbank, ruled against Graham and in favor of the Saints.
The rub? It all came down to ambiguous language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that was negotiated in 2011. Burbank didn’t find the language in the CBA to be specific enough for him to rule in favor of Graham. The decision could end up costing Graham as much as $5.3M per year, which is the difference between the salaries of franchise tagged WRs and TEs. Here is a quote, obtained via ProFootballTalk, from Burbank’s 14-page decision.
"“I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or ‘arm’s-length’ from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such linemen.”"
This decision, although it could be appealed, sets a precedence that will likely govern the decisions and future contracts of the versatile tight ends in the NFL, like Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and the Denver Broncos’ own Julius Thomas.
Mike Florio of PFT goes on to say,
"“So why did Burbank draw a line in the slot? Burbank concluded that, within the distance of four yards, a tight end can perform any of his three primary roles: blocking on running plays, blocking on passing plays, and running pass routes.The somewhat arbitrary distance crafted by the arbitrator feels like an effort to reach the result that Burbank believed to be the fair result, based on evidence that the Saints scouted and drafted Graham as a tight end, that Graham calls himself a tight end, that he made the Pro Bowl as a tight end, and that he generally is a tight end. Unable to easily tuck the snaps taken in the slot into either the tight end or receiver bucket, Burbank crafted a dividing line that put enough snaps in the tight end category.Right or wrong, Burbank’s decision becomes the law of the NFL land unless and until it’s reversed on appeal. And the appeal will become moot if the Saints sign Graham to a long-term deal — or if another team swoops in and signs him to an offer sheet that the Saints won’t or can’t match.”"
With the Broncos working on a new deal for Julius Thomas, it is very likely that Thomas and his representation have been watching this case closely. If the Broncos and Thomas’ contract extension negotiations should go south and the team chooses to franchise tag him at the end of the 2014 season, unfortunately, it looks like he’ll have to be content with ”tight end” money.