Unique Skill Sets Present A Unique Dilemma

The Jimmy Graham arbitration and subsequent ruling has understandably generated a considerable amount of discussion amongst football fans, regardless of whether or not one follows the New Orleans Saints.

Of course, Graham, designated as a tight end, contended that he should technically be classified as a wide receiver when it comes to the franchise tag due to the manner in which he is deployed in Sean Payton’s offense.

The arbitrator recently ruled that Graham is indeed a tight end and not a wide receiver, regardless of the fact that he lines up out wide and in the slot considerably more often than is the accepted norm for the tight end position.

Initially, my interest was drawn solely by the arbitration process and the potential pitfalls that it might encounter in the future, accepting that Graham’s case was perhaps unique.

I wondered what would happen in arbitration in cases in which a player of one position did in fact literally man a different position during his season prior to receiving the franchise tag, citing as an example former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca playing tackle for a season. Could he rightly contend that he should be designated as a tackle, and thus a higher pay bracket?

Subsequent discussion raised a more dynamic topic, however, which may become a growing concern in the future. As the game of football evolves, so too do the athletes who play the game, and thus the positions that they play.

Positions have shifted over time generally, of course, as the game has undergone extensive evolution since its inception. But in the modern era of football so inextricably tied to commerce, it’s perhaps more important now than ever to be able to place a definition to a position.

The franchise tag is, of course, tied directly to position, as is the new club fifth-year option on the rookie contracts of first-round selections. But contracts generally are measured against position; for example, Maurkice Pouncey’s annual salary on his new contract technically makes him the game’s highest-paid center. New quarterback contracts are routinely designed to one up the last big quarterback contract.

Even with the franchise tag as a tight end, a contract extension for Graham could make him the league’s highest-paid tight end. But what type of tight end is he?

Graham spent the majority of his time last season lined up in the slot, which is typically the domain of a wide receiver. But does that make a player that lines up primarily in the slot a wide receiver? Or does it liberate the slot from being defined by position?

After all, running backs and tight ends have lined up in the slot from time to time for many years. Both positions have gradually become more and more involved in the passing game over the decades. “Pass catcher” is part of their job description now.

The focus of the discussion now becomes attempting to classify specific positional evolutions. Graham’s position provides us with an organic example.

Is he simply a modern tight end with an expanded role away from the line, with greater focus on receiving? Is he a hybrid player, a tight end slash wide receiver? Or are there rigid boundaries between positions which, when crossed, alter a player’s role?

The Steelers this year have a hybrid player or two of their own. While Will Johnson has been moved to the tight end room for the time being, rookie Dri Archer is in fact officially listed on the team’s website as “WR/RB”. It would be interesting to see how the case of a player that is recognized by his own team to encompass multiple positions would be handled in the future in an arbitration.

I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions at this time. I simply wonder if the league itself will ever attempt to answer them in a formal way, or if they will leave it to an arbitration process on a case-by-case basis, which is perhaps the preferred method of the NFLPA. Eventually, perhaps, a precedent will be set, and one side or the other will be forced to adapt.

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