Where Graham ranks among receivers

Throughout the great Jimmy Graham debate, I've maintained that he is in fact a tight end -- but he deserves to be paid as much as a top wide receiver.

Specifically, I would rank Graham among the top 10 overall pass-catchers in the NFL today. And he's even more valuable in a New Orleans Saints offense that loves to exploit mismatches.

That ranking is obviously hard to quantify. You can get into some extreme apples-to-oranges comparisons when trying to measure Graham's value against smaller, speedier weapons such as Percy Harvin or DeSean Jackson.

And, yes, I've seen the evidence of how Graham's production has declined when he's matched up against No. 1 cornerbacks instead of linebackers and safeties -- especially against New England and Seattle last season.

Still, I think it's impossible to diminish the monster numbers that Graham has consistently produced for three straight seasons. Since 2011, Graham's 36 touchdown catches lead the NFL, regardless of position. He's averaging 90 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns per season in that span. And he has played through two significant injuries to his wrist (in 2012) and his foot (in 2013). At a grievance hearing Wednesday, the NFLPA argued that Graham should officially be labeled as a wide receiver instead of a tight end for franchise-tag purposes. At stake is whether the Saints will be required to offer him a one-year franchise-tag salary of $7.053 million as a tight end or $12.132 million as a wide receiver.

Graham was held quiet in two playoff games last season, but I dispute the notion that he comes up small in big games. He combined for 11 catches, 131 yards and 3 touchdowns in two pivotal December showdowns against the Carolina Panthers last season. He was huge in the 2011 postseason.

So where exactly does Graham rank among current NFL receivers? Put another way: If a draft were held tomorrow, with all receivers and tight ends eligible, where would Graham be selected?

Fittingly, I got different responses when I ran the idea past two of ESPN's scouting Insiders, Matt Williamson (top 10) and K.C. Joyner (not in the top 20).

"I think he's a top-10, top-12 NFL pass-catcher, and that's being conservative. If you're inside the 20, I might take Graham over all of them," said Williamson, who said his standard for comparison was: "Who is the most difficult to cover?"

Joyner agreed with part of that, saying: "For jump-ball passes, Graham might be the best in the league, especially toward the goal line." However, he added: "When it comes to vertical throws in general, he wouldn't be top 20. When it comes to being utilized as an all-around receiver, the vertical woes would also keep Graham outside of the top 20."

Joyner, who went into further detail in a piece for ESPN Insider, added: "Maybe the best way to put it is he's much like Darren Sproles was for the Saints -- a matchup nightmare in certain situations but also limited in some ways."

So clearly it's a matter of taste. And maybe it would be more accurate to claim that Graham belongs in a "tier" of pass-catchers that fall between the top-7 and top-20 best in the NFL, depending on your preference. Most everyone would probably agree on six receivers who clearly rank ahead of Graham: Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas in one order or another. After that, I think you could start making a case for Graham against anyone.

Williamson said he would put three others ahead of Graham -- Alshon Jeffery, Josh Gordon and Harvin. However, none of them have shown Graham's consistency yet. Likewise, veterans Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson have clearly been better than Graham throughout their sensational careers, but now they're entering the back end of their primes.

I'd put Graham right in the conversation with all of those guys -- and right in the same ballpark with receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Rob Gronkowski (who has also battled health issues). And I'm sure people could make cases for DeSean Jackson, up-and-comers like Antonio Brown, Michael Crabtree, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Pierre Garcon or veterans like Wes Welker, Roddy White, Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne and Anquan Boldin. And I'm sure I've alienated several fan bases by leaving off some other top names. But my point isn't to come up with a definitive top-10 or top-20 ranking.

My point is simply that Graham has an excellent case for being paid the same as any wide receiver in that impressive tier of playmakers. I'm not talking Megatron or Fitzgerald money (each making more than $16 million per year). That's where Green, Jones and Bryant likely will aim when their next contracts come up.

But I absolutely believe Graham deserves to be paid in the range of the guys who currently round out the top eight among the current highest-paid receivers, according to ESPN Stats & Information: 3. Harvin ($12.9 million); 4. Mike Wallace ($12 million); 5. Dwayne Bowe ($11.2 million); 6. Jackson ($11.1 million); 7. Johnson ($10.2 million); and 8. Marshall ($10 million).

And nobody should call Graham greedy or unrealistic for aiming that high.