The New Orleans Saints star was hoping the NFL Players Association's appeal on his behalf to have him ruled a wide receiver would result in a higher franchise-tag salary this upcoming season. But special master Stephen Burbank's decision, which came in Wednesday, ruled Graham is to be paid like a tight end. That means a salary of $7.035 million instead of the $12.312 million a wide receiver would receive.
The decision, a copy of which was obtained by FOX Sports, means the Saints just gained more leverage in long-term contract negotiations. Graham and the team have until July 15 to complete a deal, otherwise he can only play under the tag this season.
In a statement, the NFLPA said the union "will advise Graham of his options and carefully determine next steps in this matter." Graham has three days to appeal the ruling.
Burbank and those who argued the appeal on both sides took many factors into consideration, from where Graham lines up (67 percent of the time last season, he was split out in a receiver-type spot) to which position meetings he attends to his Twitter and Facebook bios that state he's a "tight end" to the fact he's listed as a tight end on the Saints' roster and more.
In his decision, Burbank noted that before the 2010 NFL Draft, "the Saints assessed Mr. Graham's physical attributes and his traits or skills (or potential skiills) according to criteria and metrics the Club uses in evaluating tight ends, which in some respects distinguished Mr. Graham from what the Saints look for in wide receivers, including his size."
Burbank noted the NFLPA tried to argue that a player's position is defined not by his stature and by titles but rather by his location on the field and his assignments that follow. In other words, the union argued Graham is no longer a tight end when he's not "tight" to the line of scrimmage and not blocking, or being covered by, players he'd usually encounter when on the line (i.e. defensive linemen or linebackers).
But Burbank concluded Graham was often neither exclusively "tight" nor "wide" when he lined up in the slot. As Burbank put it, Graham was pretty much in a "categorical no-man's land." (Burbank noted the evidence showed Graham was in the slot for 51.7 percent of the plays and within 4 yards of the tackle for 54.6 percent of the plays.)
Burbank believes the response from a defense when Graham was lined up out wide was different than it would have been if he were a wide receiver, which means he received special attention in the form of double coverage or single coverage from an athletic linebacker. Burbank noted running backs and wide receivers who line up in the slot are also defended based "on the player's position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions."
And so, Graham's attempt to pick up a big chunk of change to turn into a bigger long-term deal was denied. He figures to soon have a lucrative contract, nonetheless. As FOX Sports reported in February, the Saints told Graham during talks last year they were willing to make him the highest-paid tight end at more than $10 million per season. Graham, who held out of the Saints' optional and mandatory spring practices, was hoping to eclipse that number by several million, based on his argument he was more a wide receiver than tight end. But that argument was clipped Wednesday.