Saints may franchise tag Graham, but at what position?
On the heels of his fourth NFL season, Graham is now slated for unrestricted free agency, which is bound to result in a huge raise from his rookie contract. The Saints, however, will not allow a bidding war to ensue over their prized pass catcher. General manager Mickey Loomis said Tuesday that the team will apply the franchise tag to Graham if the sides can not reach an agreement on a long-term deal.
It is a relatively obvious decision by Loomis, but it poses an interesting question - what position does Graham play? The franchise tag varies in value based on the average annual salary of the top-five players at the position of the player being tagged. Therefore, if Graham is tagged as a tight end (the position he is listed at), he will be paid significantly less than if he were tagged as a wide receiver.
While Graham is listed as a tight end, he played just one-third of his snaps at the traditional in-line tight end spot in 2013. The rest of his snaps were played split out wide and in the slot, which are more of traditional receiver alignments. Graham was also targeted 21 more times than any other tight end in the NFL, and his targets would have ranked 14th among wide receivers. He led all Saints pass catchers in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. In addition, Graham is not a very good blocker, which is generally a large portion of tight ends' responsibilities. When you break it down, Graham is much more of a wide receiver than a tight end.
Loomis, however, claims that the tight end position is "where [Graham] was drafted and that's what he is," so it appears as if the Saints won't hand their star pass catcher wide receiver money without a fight. The Saints will argue that the tight end position has changed around the league, and that Graham fits the mold of what the position has become. Loomis' insistence that the team will use the franchise tag if a long-term deal can't be reached pretty much ensures that Graham will not be hitting the open market this offseason, but it could turn into an ugly battle if it comes down to what position Graham will be tagged as. Graham should fight this one out until the end, because he has a good case and the Saints absolutely do not want to let him get away.
It's worth noting that the difference between the tight end and wide receiver franchise tag was $4.5 million last year. The Saints are projected to be over the cap by $12.5 million heading into the offseason, so a long-term deal is by far the best route for them.