Saints coach Sean Payton’s past use of playmakers such as Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Darren Sproles helped New Orleans win lots of games and field some of the NFL’s most potent offenses.
But Payton probably never imagined that would one day help the Saints score an initial victory in this offseason’s franchise-tag dispute with All-Pro Jimmy Graham, at least in a small way.
Such a reality was one of the more interesting side notes to surface in Wednesday’s decision from NFL system arbitrator Stephen Burbank, which was unfavorable to Graham and his quest for $5 million more than what the Saints wanted to pay him under the tag.
The one-year tag in question prevented the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham from becoming an unrestricted free agent when the four-year contract he was given as a rookie in 2010 lapsed in March. The tag is worth more than $7 million for the 2014 season and classifies him as a tight end.
But because Graham lined up mostly as a slot receiver in 2013, when he led the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown catches, he filed a grievance in May through the league players union contending that he should get a wide receiver franchise tag worth more than $12 million.
Burbank heard the case for and against Graham during a June 17-18 hearing at a Sheraton hotel in Metairie. Among the many arguments Graham’s camp made that he was a wide receiver was to present evidence establishing that he worked alongside wide receivers in certain practice drills that simulated third-down situations (typically held on Thursdays on weeks when a game is Sunday).
Having the burden of proof in the grievance hearing, Graham claimed he was the only player listed on the Saints’ roster as a tight end to practice with the wide receivers, according to the text of Burbank’s decision. Payton challenged that, saying veteran tight end Benjamin Watson also worked out with the receivers when it was “Third Down Day” in 2013.
Payton then offered up the testimony that won Burbank over on that aspect of the case. In Third Down Day Drills in previous seasons, Bush and Sproles — listed as running backs from 2006-10 and 2011-13, respectively — and Shockey, classified as a tight end on the roster from 2008-10, similarly practiced with the wide receivers, the coach said.
Bush, Sproles and Shockey were all prolific ball catchers in Payton’s offenses, none of which have finished worse than fourth in passing yards.
No one contradicted Payton in the hearing. “I credit Coach Payton’s testimony on this point,” Burbank wrote.
Ultimately, Burbank concluded Graham shouldn’t be tagged a wide receiver but rather a tight end, mainly because the arbitrator judged the player spent most of his time in 2013 in the slot position and within four yards of the nearest tackle, traditional spots for tight ends.
Bush, Sproles and Shockey never challenged their designated positions despite working with the wide receivers on Third Down Days. But they earned handsomely.
Bush’s rookie contract as a first-round Saints draft pick was worth up to $62 million. Shockey — who, like Bush, won Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints — was due a $4.2 million base salary the year he was cut by New Orleans. Sproles had a four-year, $14 million contract before he was traded for a draft pick in March.
Meanwhile, Graham’s rookie contract averaged just $824,535 annually.
Graham can appeal Burbank’s decision but only has until about July 12 to serve notice if he will. The three-person panel that would oversee any appeal is comprised of James Oldham, a Georgetown University law professor; Richard Holwell, a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York from 2003 to 2012; and Fern Smith, a retired U.S. District Court judge who served in the Northern District of California from 1988 to 2005.
Graham hasn’t made any public remarks on Burbank’s ruling or his intentions moving forward. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Saints and Graham can also reach agreement on a new long-term contract to replace the expired one he accepted from the team as a rookie in 2010 any time before a July 15 deadline. Many pundits believe he should still get a deal that annually pays him more than a six-year, $54 million one given to New England’s Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s highest paid tight end, even if Burbank’s ruling likely cost Graham the leverage he needed to command the millions more per season a franchise wideout could.
After July 15, Graham can only either sign the franchise tag and play under its terms or sit out 2014.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis on Thursday told The Advocate that the team had no comment on either Burbank’s ruling or contract negotiations with Graham.