Why Jimmy Graham Should Be Paid like a Wide Receiver
The economics of the NFL have always been a fascinating topic for me. As a fan, I believe that the way an organization allocates their funds is the most important factor in a team’s long-term success. Talent evaluation is obviously of utmost importance as well, but how you retain the talent on your roster can ultimately make or break your franchise. When contract discussions go bad, not only do they affect the player in question, but sometimes they can throw the entire locker room into upheaval.
Last week, The San Francisco 49ers came to terms with Colin Kaepernick on a new six-year, $114 million deal (with $2 million escalators for reaching certain goals), making him the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. numberFire’s JJ Zachariason researched Kaepernick’s new deal and found that, while some many criticize the 49ers, the new deal is not abnormal in today’s NFL.
After the deal had been finalized, much of the discussion shifted to the possible ramifications of Kaepernick's deal for future contracts. ESPN’s John Clayton wrote about how Kaepernick’s new deal may change the way NFL front-offices do business moving forward.
With all this attention surrounding compensation for NFL players, another NFL superstar - Jimmy Graham - is also in the process of getting the contract he believes his play has earned him.
Graham entered the league in 2010 as a third-round pick of the Saints. Although he only played one season of college football at the University of Miami, Graham has ascended in the NFL quickly, leading the league in receiving touchdowns last season (16), two more than the next closest player, Demaryius Thomas.
It’s clear how great an impact Graham has had on the New Orleans Saints offense, but the way he has changed the tight end position cannot be understated. No longer just blockers, new-wave tight ends like Graham now play the role of oversized receivers capable of causing mismatches for opposing defenses all over the field.
Earlier this off-season, the Saints placed their franchise tag on Graham as a tight end, resulting in a one-year deal worth $7.04 million in 2014. Graham has since filed a grievance against the Saints claiming he should be considered as a wide receiver, which would increase his 2014 salary by more than $5 million.
At first glance, you may think Graham is simply motivated by money, without much merit to his claim. However, according to rotoworld.com, Graham lined up as a wide receiver (in the slot or out wide) on 67% of his snaps in 2013. With this information, it’s easy to see why Graham considers himself more than a standard tight end.
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who is currently sitting out voluntary OTAs, recently weighed in on Graham’s situation. There’s no doubt Davis sees himself in the same light as Graham, and would like for a precedent to be set that would benefit players like himself in future contract negotiations.
To find out whether or not Graham's claim is valid, it's important to see how his production compares to current wide receiver production. In an article last week, I showed how Dez Bryant compared to other top receivers to show why he deserves a big-money contract. Looking at both Bryant and Graham’s production in their first four NFL seasons, we get an idea of how Graham matches up against a premiere wide receiver.
|Games Played||Receptions||Rec. Yards||Rec. Touchdowns|
Since 2010, when both players entered the NFL, there's been no significant difference between Graham and Bryant’s production. Now using numberFire’s Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, a measure of how a specific player’s performance on each play translates into his team’s final score, let’s look closer at how Graham stacked up against all players, regardless of position, with 80-plus receptions in 2013.
|Receptions||Reception NEP||Reception NEP/Target|
|Calvin Johnson (WR)||84||143.56||0.92|
|Josh Gordon (WR)||87||138.64||0.87|
|Demaryius Thomas (WR)||92||130.03||0.92|
|A.J. Green (WR)||98||127.49||0.72|
|Brandon Marshall (WR)||100||122.82||0.75|
|Anquan Boldin (WR)||85||120.57||0.93|
|Antonio Brown (WR)||110||120.20||0.72|
|Jimmy Graham (TE)||86||119.71||0.84|
|Alshon Jeffery (WR)||89||117.41||0.79|
|Jordy Nelson (WR)||85||117.07||0.92|
As you can see, Graham is the only tight end ranked in the top 10. The recently retired Tony Gonzalez was the next closest tight end in Reception NEP, ranking 17th. The only other tight end to have 80-plus catches was Jordan Cameron, whose NEP ranked 20th out of 22 qualifying players. Dez Bryant, with whom Graham compared similarly from a raw statistical standpoint, ranked 14th out of the same subset.
Not only does this table show that Graham ranks among the league’s elite wide receivers, but he's also miles above any other tight end in terms of Reception NEP. Making a judgment based on his efficiency alone, you should conclude that Graham has every right to be compensated like other high-end receivers who happen to be his peers, production-wise.
From the Saints perspective, this was a simple financial decision. Instead of negotiating a new, long-term deal with Graham, they chose to pay him the minimum allowed by franchise-tag rules, hoping to hold him over while attempting to re-sign him.
Beginning on June 17, Graham will be able to state his case and will find out if he can be considered as a wide receiver for contract purposes - which according to our metrics he absolutely should be. The verdict will no doubt have an effect on the Saints who in the long run would be wise to sign Graham to a new contract - whether they consider him a tight end or not.