Jimmy Graham: Tight end or receiver?

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham could emerge as the biggest hot-button topic in the NFL this offseason, with two critical questions up for debate:

Is he a receiver or a tight end?

And how much is he worth?

The first will become important if Graham and the Saints are unable to agree on a new long-term contract before the franchise-tag deadline of March 3. If the Saints opt to use the franchise tag on Graham, it could set off a groundbreaking battle over his official designation.

Last year the franchise-tag salary was $10.5 million for receivers and $6 million for tight ends.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Graham lined up 291 times this year as an in-line tight end (33 percent). He lined up 395 times in the slot (45 percent). And he lined up 191 times out wide (22 percent). Pro Football Focus had almost the exact same numbers (290, 396 and 191).

Graham's agent Jimmy Sexton would likely argue that Graham should be labeled as a receiver since he spent 67 percent of his snaps lined up in traditional receiver positions. The Saints, meanwhile, could argue that Graham is still a tight end, first and foremost, and that the modern-day definition of the position is different than it used to be.

It's a debate that has come up in recent years with pending free agents like Jared Cook and Jermichael Finley -- as well as with some defensive players who are hybrid outside linebacker/defensive ends. But it has never reached the point before where an official decision had to be made.

I can see both sides of the argument.

Graham is indeed used primarily as a receiver. He even comes off the field on many run plays to be relieved by better blocking tight ends.

However, the tight end position is starting to become more and more dominated by similar-type players like veterans Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates and emerging youngsters Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas. And their salaries count among the franchise-tag figures for tight ends.

In fact, Gonzalez actually ran significantly more routes as a receiver this year (483) than Graham (373), according to ESPN Stats and Information. Cameron was close behind at 365.

Breaking it down further, Graham led all tight ends in routes run while lined up out wide (133, with Gonzalez at 98). However, Graham ranked seventh among all tight ends in routes run from the slot.

In one sense, the debate shouldn't matter.

The end game here is a long-term contract -- and Graham should ultimately earn an annual salary that's closer to the $10.5 million range than the $6 million range. That more accurately reflects Graham's value to the team, no matter how you label his position.

However, the franchise-tag designation will be key since it will provide leverage for one side or the other as Sexton and Saints general manger Mickey Loomis haggle over just much that long-term deal should be worth.

Gronkowski signed the richest deal ever by a tight end in 2012 -- an extension worth $54 million over six years. That deal isn't a perfect comparison, since Gronkowski was only two years into his rookie deal at the time, and because it included an opportunity for the New England Patriots to opt out of the final four years. However, that $9 million average should help set the floor for Graham's market value.

Meanwhile, a top free-agent receiver such as Mike Wallace signed a five-year deal worth $60 million last year with the Miami Dolphins.