Contracts Headline Sports Law

How Much Should Jimmy Graham Cash-in?

Compare the following stats:

Player A: 84 receptions, 1,492 yards, 17.8 avg. yards/catch, 12 TDs

Player B: 86 receptions, 1,215 yards, 14.1 avg. yards/catch, 16 TDs

Player C: 52 receptions, 850 yards, 16.3 avg. yards/catch 13 TDs

If you guessed that Player A and Player B were two of the top receivers for the 2013 NFL season for their respective teams, you would be correct; however, if you assumed that both players played the same position, you would be wrong. Player A is Calvin Johnson, widely regarded as the top wide receiver in the NFL, a notion the Detroit Lions seemed to agree with when the team made him the highest wide receiver in NFL history, signing him to an eight-year contract worth up to $132 million dollars, with $60 million guaranteed. Player C is Vernon Davis, recent mini-camp holdout for NFC runner up, the San Francisco 49ers. Davis recently expressed his reasoning for holding out on Sports’ Illustrated MMQB. Therein he states “In 2010 I signed a five-year, $37 million contract extension with $23 million guaranteed [which at the time] was the biggest contract for a tight end in league history.” Four years later, Davis is holding out because he believes he is currently worth more based upon his production showing that he has been playing at a higher level since signing that record-setting deal.

Here’s the problem: Player B is Jimmy Graham, high-flying receiver for the New Orleans Saints. Looking at the statistical discrepancy between Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham from this past NFL season, one would assume that whatever contract Jimmy Graham receives from the Saints in this off-season would greatly eclipse Davis’ record setting contract from 2010. Furthermore, based upon his recent string of injuries that has hampered his production over the past two seasons, it follows that Jimmy Graham should be set to receive much more than Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots tight-end who agreed in 2012 to what is now known as the richest contract for a tight end in NFL history: 6 years, $53 million, with $16.5 million guaranteed. However, that is not what Graham is seeking. He does not want to be paid based upon being known as the top tight end; he wants to be compensated for being one of the top receivers in the league.

Arbitrator Stephen Burbank is hearing arguments from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the NFL Management Council regarding whether Graham should be officially labeled as a tight end or wide receiver for purposes of the franchise tag placed upon him by the Saints. Pursuant to the language of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the contract for a player whose teams has used the franchise tag is determined as such:

(ii) Exclusive Franchise Tender. The Exclusive Franchise Tender shall be a one year NFL Player Contract for (A) the average of the five largest Salaries in Player Contracts for that League Year as of the end of the Restricted Free Agent Signing Period that League Year…for players at the position…at which he participated in the most plays during the prior League Year, or (B) the amount of the Required Tender under Subsection (a)(1) above, whichever is greater.

The NFL CBA is a legally enforceable contract signed between the players and owners. Therefore, when interpreting its language, the words should be given their plain and ordinary meaning, unless it is determined that the language is ambiguous. When ambiguous, interpreters must look outside the language of a contract in order to determine the true intent of the parties when they agreed upon its language. However, it is apparent that, under the NFL CBA, compensation for a player placed under the franchise is determinative of where the player spent most of his time on the field.

Using the language of the CBA, Graham’s main argument is that he should considered a wide receiver based upon the fact that he lined up either in the slot or out wide 67 percent of the time during the 2013 NFL season. Stated differently, because Graham spent more than two-thirds of 2013 NFL season playing various wide receiver positions, and not lining up as a tight end, he should be compensated as such. While the Saints counter is that the team drafted Graham as a tight end, his Twitter biography lists himself as a tight end, and tight end is the position that he made the made the Pro Bowl under, based upon how the language of the CBA is constructed, such an argument would seem only to show that Graham is a tight end by name, but not by use. The difference in the amount of money Graham stands to make depending on the arbitrator’s ruling is substantial. If Burbank sides with Graham and decides he should be labeled as a wide receiver under the franchise tag, based upon the numbers released by the NFL for the 2014 season, Graham stands to make $12.312 million for the upcoming season. However, if the Saints are able to persuade Burbank otherwise, Graham would have to settle for $7.035 million.

While one of the Saints’ arguments relies on the basis that Graham’s Twitter profile states he is a Saints tight end, other corners of social media shows that other members of the Twitter community view Graham as a wide receiver as well. Michael David Smith, managing editor of Pro Football Talk, believes that the language of the CBA makes this an easy decision for the arbitrator ruling in Graham’s favor. Vernon Davis also states that he believes Jimmy Graham should be paid as a wide receiver in an article shared on If the Saints are going to rely on the Graham’s Twitter handle to persuade Burbank to label him as a tight end, it follows that other social media arguments should also play a role in order to help clarify this truly intriguing situation.

Graham’s designation is not only important to him, personally, but also to the grand scheme of the league. Over time, the tight end position has been revolutionized with the emergence of NFL teams drafting ex-college basketball players to play the position.  Just this past year, NFL fans were able to witness the breakout season of Denver Broncos tight end, Julius Thomas. Drafted in the fourth round by the Broncos in 2011, Thomas had not played collegiate football prior to the year 2010, but did play four seasons for the Portland State basketball team, where he was twice named to Big Sky All-Tournament Team. It is not unimaginable to envision the Broncos utilizing Thomas in role more similar to Graham as he further progresses in the league. Therefore, whatever decision that Burbank makes may play a role in determining how teams will utilize players in hybrid roles in the future.