Jimmy Graham hearing begins

METAIRIE, La. -- Is he a tight end or a wide receiver? An answer is near as Jimmy Graham's franchise-tag grievance hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Arbitrator Stephen Burbank will hear arguments from the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council to determine if Graham should be officially labeled as a tight end or a wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes. The proceedings will be held privately. And it's unclear how long it will take Burbank to issue a ruling, though one week is a fair guess based on past arbitration hearings.

The hearing is being held in the New Orleans area, although the exact location is unknown, and is expected to conclude Wednesday.

At stake is whether the New Orleans Saints will be required to offer Graham a one-year franchise-tag salary of $7.035 million or $12.3 million.

Even more critical is how the ruling will affect their negotiations over a long-term contract. The two sides have until July 15 to reach a long-term agreement, or else Graham can only play under a one-year deal this season.

Graham's argument is that he should be considered a receiver because he lined up either in the slot or out wide 67 percent of the time last year. And the collective bargaining agreement states that the franchise-tag designation is based on the position "at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year."

However, what remains ambiguous is what officially constitutes lining up as a tight end, which has always been a hybrid between receiver and blocker -- especially in the modern passing game.

For example, one of the NFL's all-time great tight ends, Tony Gonzalez, lined up in the slot or out wide even more often than Graham last year (67.3 percent to 66.8 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said earlier this offseason, "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."

And a league source last week worded the NFL's stance even more strenuously, calling the union's position a "naked cash grab" and pointing out that coaches have split the tight end wide "since the days of Mike Ditka."

Few observers have a more unique perspective on this battle than fellow Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who is also a member of the NFLPA's executive committee.

Watson said he's very interested in seeing how things play out. However, he's also one of the many who don't think the answer to the debate is clear-cut.

"I understand totally what [Graham] is saying. And on the flip side I understand totally what the Saints are saying," Watson said. "I understand both sides from where I sit as a player, as well as being involved in the NFLPA and just as a fan of the game."

Although this debate has come up with other tight ends like Jared Cook and Jermichael Finley in recent years, this will be the first time it has reached the point of an arbitration hearing.

Watson said he sees a need for the rule to be clarified since the game is constantly evolving.

"Eventually that's how things change for the better," Watson said. "The game evolves and the game changes, and then you have these athletes like a Jimmy that are tremendous and can do so many things that's not expected of a certain position. And then rules in the game change that kind of favor certain positions doing certain things, like a tight end. And then you kinda change the rules. ...

"I think that whatever happens is gonna be maybe some clarification in the language after this grievance is heard. But more as a friend to Jimmy and as a player for the Saints, you just want the best for both sides. And you want it to be, I guess, a mutual agreement where both sides are happy and we can come back together and play football and win football games."

Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, is frequently used as an arbitrator in NFL collective bargaining matters. And he has been involved in some high-profile Saints matters in the recent past.

Burbank ruled in Saints quarterback Drew Brees' favor in 2012 when Brees asked to be considered a second-time franchised player since he had previously been franchised by the San Diego Chargers.

And Burbank also ruled in the NFL's favor during the bounty proceedings that year when the NFLPA claimed that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should not be able to impose penalties because the alleged bounty system should be considered an off-the-field matter.