Graham grievance should speed up talks

The best part about Jimmy Graham's decision to file a grievance over his franchise tag? It should light a fire under his negotiations with the New Orleans Saints.

Up until Wednesday, it appeared as though both sides were content to wait until the July 15 deadline for franchised players to sign long-term deals.

But now, they should be motivated to work out a long-term deal even sooner.

Otherwise, they'll be putting an awful lot of negotiating leverage in the hands of a neutral third-party arbitrator. And as former NFL executive Bill Polian said on the subject earlier this offseason: “There's an old saying that when you put an issue in the hands of a third party, then there's a possibility that neither side is happy with the result.”

The debate is compelling: The Saints feel Graham should be considered a tight end, which comes with a franchise-tag salary of $7.035 million. And Graham's camp feels he should be considered a wide receiver, which comes with a salary of $12.3 million.

But that debate doesn't really matter. If the two sides can agree on Graham's value, they don't have to worry about the label.

As I've written before, I believe Graham should be considered a tight end. But I also believe he deserves to be paid like a top-10 wide receiver based on his production and his value to the offense.

So go ahead and call Graham a tight end -- or a “hybrid,” as quarterback Drew Brees likes to say. But pay him what he's worth. Maybe something like $10.5 million per year.

Regardless of what that specific amount is, it would behoove both Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and Graham's agent Jimmy Sexton to figure it out on their own. Because even though they both believe they have strong cases in the tight end/receiver debate, neither can be assured of how an arbitrator will rule.

The argument for a wide receiver designation is based on where Graham lines up. Last year, he spent 67 percent of his snaps either in the slot (45 percent) or out wide (22 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. And he led the Saints in every receiving category with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

However, the Saints will counter that lining up in those spots is part of the tight end's job description.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Graham was one of three full-time tight ends who spent more than 50 percent of his snaps off the line last year – along with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Another eight starting tight ends lined up in traditional receiver positions at least 45 percent of the time.

When asked if he considers Graham a tight end in January, Loomis said, “Isn't that what we drafted him as? Isn't that what he made the Pro Bowl as? That's what we see him as, a tight end. … That's what makes him valuable.”

The specific timetable for a hearing hasn't been laid out yet. A neutral arbitrator will be agreed upon by the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council. Then a hearing date will be set.

In the past, only one such hearing has ever taken place -- when the Baltimore Ravens and Terrell Suggs debated over whether he should be considered a defensive end or linebacker. But even then, the two sides worked out a compromise before the arbitrator made his ruling.

So while it would be fascinating to see how an arbitrator rules in Graham's case, it would be just as fascinating to see if the two sides allow it to get that far.