MOBILE, Ala. -- General manager Mickey Loomis said the New Orleans Saints will use the franchise tag on tight end Jimmy Graham if necessary -- a move that could trigger a groundbreaking battle over whether the pending free agent should be officially considered a tight end or a wide receiver.
And Loomis made it clear that the Saints consider Graham a tight end.
"Isn't that what we drafted him as? Isn't that what he made the Pro Bowl as?" Loomis said. "That's what we see him as, a tight end. ... That's what makes him valuable."
Loomis repeatedly stressed that the March 3 franchise-tag deadline is more than a month away. He would prefer to work out a long-term contract extension with Graham in the meantime.
"We're going to franchise him if that's necessary. We're a long ways from that. I don't know if it's worth discussing right now," Loomis said while addressing the media during Tuesday morning's Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala. "We're in the early part of the process, and obviously we want to have Jimmy back and he wants to be back. And so we just have to go through this process."
The difference between the franchise-tag salary for a receiver and a tight end will be significant. Last year it was $10.5 million versus $6 million.
Graham is the most high-profile case yet in what has become a growing debate in recent years over whether a tight end should be officially labeled as a wide receiver if he plays more than 50 percent of his snaps in a traditional receiver alignment. It came up with Jared Cook and Jermichael Finley in recent seasons -- though it has never reached the stage where they were actually franchised. So the debate never has been brought before an arbitrator.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Graham lined up as a receiver on 67 percent of his snaps in 2013 (45 percent in the slot, 22 percent out wide, 33 percent as an in-line tight end).
That's not uncommon in the evolving NFL, where tight ends are becoming increasingly involved in the passing game. Veteran Tony Gonzalez (whose salary counts among the top five tight ends for franchise-tag purposes) ran significantly more passing routes (483) than Graham (373) did this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"Look, the tight end has always been part of the passing game," Loomis said. "And he's part of the running game. So he's part of both. So are receivers, so are running backs."
Loomis said he wasn't sure exactly what the procedure would be if the Saints tag Graham and his agent Jimmy Sexton or the NFL Players Association wants to appeal the ruling. It would likely be presented before an arbitrator.
"I don't know what the process for that is, and I'm not really worried about it," Loomis said. "I'm more worried about developing and coming to terms on a long-term contract."
That won't be a simple process either, since Graham's contract is expected to be groundbreaking if he agrees to a long-term extension.
Graham is expected to become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history after catching 16 touchdown passes in 2013. During his four-year career with the Saints, he has 301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns.
The previous top contract for a tight end was the six-year, $54 million extension that Rob Gronkowski signed with the New England Patriots in 2012.
Complicating matters is that the Saints are facing strict salary-cap restraints this year. They are already about $12.5 million over the projected salary cap of $126.6 million.
But that's nothing new to the Saints, who have worked through similar restraints in each of the past two years.
"We've got salary-cap work to do before the beginning of the league year, regardless of what happens with Jimmy," Loomis said. "But we've got smart people in our building. Khai Harley does a great job for us in that area. Obviously I have experience in that area. And we'll get a lot of input from the rest of our staff. So we'll manage it.
"It's not unusual. There are a number of teams that have been good teams that get in this position. We'll navigate our way through it. It's not our first rodeo in terms of having this circumstance, and yet it does limit us. It does limit some of the things we can do. So we'll just see what the consequence of that is."