In a groundbreaking decision, the NFL has confirmed that arbitrator Stephen Burbank denied Graham's request to officially be declared a wide receiver under the NFL's franchise-tag rules.
Although Graham lined up either in the slot or out wide on 67 percent of his snaps last year, Burbank agreed with the New Orleans Saints and the NFL Management Council, who argued that the tight end position has always involved a combination of splitting out wide to run pass routes and staying in to block -- especially in today's modern passing offenses.
Graham and the NFL Players Association can appeal the decision within 10 days to a three-member appeals panel.
In the meantime, the Saints will not have to increase their one-year tender offer of $7.053 million to Graham. The receiver tender would have cost them $12.132 million.
More important, with the franchise grievance nearing a conclusion, the two sides can now focus on setting their own value for Graham in long-term contract talks.
The deadline for signing long-term deals with franchised players is July 15.
"The NFLPA will review with Jimmy Graham the decision from Arbitrator Stephen Burbank which permits the player to be designated as a tight end for Franchise Tag purposes. We will advise Graham of his options and carefully determine next steps in this matter," the NFLPA said in a statement. "We will also continue to assist Graham and his representation as necessary to help the player reach a fair long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints."
Graham will still almost certainly become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing the $9 million per year that Rob Gronkowski received in a 2012 extension with the New England Patriots. However, it will be harder for Graham to approach something in the $12 million-per-year range now.
The Saints have leverage because they could potentially lock up Graham for two straight years with the franchise tag at costs of $7.053 million this year and $8.46 million in 2015 -- though Graham obviously could refuse to sign the tenders and hold out of training camp.
Graham and the NFLPA were banking on the notion that Burbank would assign a more literal definition to the wording in the collective bargaining agreement, which states that the franchise-tag designation is based on the position "at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year."
Ultimately, Burbank ruled that Graham was officially lining up at the position of tight end either when he was against the line or when he was flexed out into the slot "at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of (the nearest offensive) lineman."
Burbank said he only considered those plays because evidence showed that Graham was lined up within four yards of the line on more than 50 percent of his snaps. Burbank determined that it wasn't essential for purposes of this grievance to consider snaps where Graham lined up even farther out.
Burbank's 12-page ruling laid out a number of compelling arguments from both sides -- including testimony from Saints coach Sean Payton, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and expert witnesses Bill Polian and Butch Davis, among others.
The evidence that appeared to weigh most heavily into Burbank's decision was that Graham was often defended as a tight end even when he lined up in the slot (i.e., by a linebacker or a strong safety).
Wrote Burbank: "The evidence also supports findings that, like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot ... and that the defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player's position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions."
Burbank then cited testimony from Payton, who said, "When our receivers are lined up widest in formations, they are never covered by safeties or linebackers ever. ... Never ever ever ever ever does a linebacker match up with a wide receiver ever."
As Burbank dissected all of the arguments, he wrote that there were "a number of sources of ambiguity" in trying to determine when Graham was officially lining up as a tight end -- mainly because there is no clear definition of the tight end position contained within the CBA.
The two sides even submitted alternate definitions of the word "position" from competing dictionaries, which Burbank said he didn't find helpful in this case. And Burbank dismissed the notion that the word "tight" should be taken literally -- just as the word "wide" shouldn't be taken literally in defining a wide receiver. Burbank wrote that such literal interpretations would leave Graham in "a categorical no man's land."
However, Burbank also dismissed a number of arguments from the Saints and the NFL's side as being absolute definitions, as well -- including the arguments that Graham was drafted as a tight end, works with tight ends in practice, has earned postseason awards as a tight end, is listed on the roster as a tight end and even that he refers to himself as a tight end in social media.
Although Burbank didn't specifically state whether Graham's social media accounts played a factor in his ruling, at least one fellow pass-catching tight end made sure to avoid the same fate.
Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron -- who is due to become a free agent after this season -- changed his Twitter bio from "Pro Bowl TE for the Browns" to "Pro Bowl pass catcher for the Browns."
Cameron joked about the switch later after ESPN Sports Business reporter Darren Rovell noted the change:
Thought no one would notice that minor change in the bio. Thanks @darrenrovell for calling me out.
- Jordan Cameron (@jordancameron) July 2, 2014Graham's grievance against his position designation was the first to reach the stage of an arbitrator's decision. In 2008, a hearing was held over whether the Baltimore Ravens' Terrell Suggs should be considered a defensive end or a linebacker. But the two sides worked out a compromise before an arbitrator made his ruling.
No matter what position he's been playing, Graham has emerged as one of the NFL's top weapons during his four-year career since being drafted in the third round out of the University of Miami.
Graham has led the NFL with 36 touchdown catches over the past three years. He has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per year over that span.
Graham's Request Denied
Mark Schlereth and Darren Woodson discuss the ruling by an arbitrator that denied Jimmy Graham's request to officially be named a wide receiver.