Athletic, pass-catching tight ends across the NFL have been dealt a severe (financial) blow.
On Wednesday afternoon, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled against New Orleans standout Jimmy Graham and with the Saints. The Pro Bowl tight end had campaigned to be considered a wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes, but Burbank’s research into the matter – and ultimate conclusion – quickly cut down what could have been a groundbreaking decision.
The 14-page document produced, however, is not without its holes. While Burbank argued that Graham lined up within four yards of the offensive line, the New Orleans star actually aligned as a receiver on more than 60 percent of his snaps. Moreover, that four-yard figure is fairly arbitrary in the grand scheme of the Saints’ innovative system anyway.
Burbank went on to encourage front-office executives and coaches to have a plan for such “borderline” cases in the future by and documenting position eligibility throughout the draft process and a player’s career. He also suggested not allowing the mixture of positions in meetings (other than team meetings) in order to avoid a foggy situation.
The tricky thing is that the position of tight end continues to evolve, and for several reasons. First, the landscape of college football has placed a heavy emphasis on spread offenses. The tight end position is moving from the traditional in-line alignment to a flex or slot, which allows a high percentage of college teams to maximize players’ athletic skill sets and take advantage of the position in the form of multiple receiver formations.
Secondly, several years ago, the NFL started to see an influx of athletic tight ends being drafted. Case in point: Graham, a basketball player at Miami with limited football experience in high school and just one year in college. Clubs began to value the production and stress these types of athletes put on a defense. Coordinators on that side of the ball suddenly had another problem to account for late into the night.
There is a solution, though: The NFL and NFLPA should agree on a hybrid name, for franchise-tag purposes, for this type of player based on the snap percentage at the position. I have a personal system for evaluating the tight end position, breaking them down into four groups.
* The complete package, or traditional tight end, is productive as both a blocker and receiver, earning the label “TE.” These tight ends certainly don’t grow on trees, and are no longer being developed at the collegiate level on a consistent basis.*
* “TEA” is an athletic tight end who aligns detached from the formation in the slot or takes the spot in the formation like a wide receiver outside the numbers. He is very inconsistent with blocking skills, with adequate in-line toughness, power and explosiveness to attack and finish consistently.
* “TEB” is a blocking tight end who lacks natural receiving skills to release into routes, awareness in space and the ability to catch the ball outside his frame. He is often inconsistent with run-after-the-catch production, but excels as an inline blocker with power, leverage and finish.
* Finally, the “MTE” (move tight end) aligns at the fullback position as the lead blocker in the I-formation, offset I-formation or in flex motion to wham block or trap the unblocked defensive linemen or end man on the line of scrimmage.
All four tight end positions should be given the grade they deserve based on the skill sets they bring to the table and the official percentage of snaps at the position. This will help create a distinct value for the franchise tag and prevent more Graham-like incidents moving forward.