The Armchair Quarterback’s Guide To The NFL: Evolution of the TE

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Dec 29, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham prior to kickoff of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Armchair Quarterback Take Of The Week:

The Definition Of A Tight End Needs Updating

Wednesday the arbitrator ruling came down that the New Orleans Saints Jimmy Graham would be considered as a tight end and not a wide receiver when it comes to his franchise tag classification. This was not a surprising development for most. Jimmy Graham has always been considered a tight end. It’s the position he was drafted at. It’s the position group that he attended meetings for with the Saints. It’s even the position that he listed on his own Twitter bio.

Jimmy Graham IS a tight end.

The problem for Graham is that he is on the cutting edge of a new era of tight ends. The NFL is alway evolving. The game is always changing. The league is always looking for new ways to get ahead and find match ups in their favor. Many of the current evolutions are taking place in the passing game. As NFL offenses evolve into a more pass dominant phase the tight end position is evolving into more of a pass catching position and moving away from the run blocking emphasis that the position had in previous generations.

Jimmy Graham’s player profile doesn’t need to update what position he plays. The NFL needs to redefine the position he is already listed at. While TEs have been a component of the passing game for a long time, we are now seeing bigger, faster, and more athletic players at the position. While the pass catching TEs of even just one generation ago were more of a short to intermediate route pass catcher that acted more as a dependable safety valve for quarterbacks the NFL is now ushering in an era where TEs like Graham, the 49ers Vernon Davis, and more are capable of lining up all over the field and stretching defenses deep. This increasing athleticism combined with creative cutting edge offensive play callers are giving defenses fits in terms of how to match up.

So the problem for Jimmy Graham isn’t that he’s unfairly being labeled as a TE. It’s that the NFL’s franchise tag doesn’t recognize the evolved role of the the TE in today’s NFL. While everyone reading this would love to have the seven million dollars that Graham will be due as a franchised TE, the fact is that the five million dollar difference between franchised TEs ($7 million) and WRs ($12 million) is probably no longer representative of the value that those positions bring to the table.

Jimmy Graham is 6’7″, 265 lbs, and caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards and 16 TDs last season.

Calvin Johnson is 6’5″, 236 lbs, and caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 TDs last season.

If you polled a collection of NFL players and experts I’m guessing that Johnson would be the most common answer to the question “who is the best WR in the NFL?” Does anyone want to make an argument that Johnson had $5 million dollars MORE of an impact for his team last season than Graham did?

The problem is that when you are the trend setter it’s going to take a while for the rest of the NFL to catch up with you. While Graham’s stats stack up with Calvin Johnson’s and while the league is trending towards more athletic pass catching TEs, the fact remains that overall they aren’t as productive in terms of overall numbers. The top five TEs in production last year (Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Jordan Cameron, Antonio Gates, and Greg Olson) averaged about 80 receptions, 936 yards, and 8 TDs. While that’s likely higher than the numbers of the top TEs 20 years ago, it’s still not in the league of the top WRs. The top five most productive WRs last season (Johnson, Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and AJ Green) averaged 94 receptions, 1,500 yards, and 11 TDs.

So the top WRs are still averaging about 14 receptions, 560 yards, and 3 TDs more than the top TEs. The top TEs don’t quite deserve to earn the same as the top WRs, at least not yet. So while Graham can claim he personally is producing like a top WR, his overall position group isn’t quite there yet. The best thing for players like Graham might be if the NFL went to more of a production based scale for the franchise tag for pass catching players. If over the three previous seasons a player’s averages are in the top 20 in receiving production they would qualify for the top tier, but if their averages were below 20 it would be a lesser tier two amount.

Regardless to what the specifics are, the NFL needs to do something and reevaluate how they classify the TE position. Players like Graham are reinventing the position before our eyes and NFL careers are too short for them to wait a decade for the pay scale to catch up. Hopefully New Orleans will give Graham a long term contract that pays him like he deserves and it will help begin the process of raising the average TE contract amounts.

Click on for my “Rant of the Week” as well as my “Beer Review of the Week”.

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Tags: Armchair Quarterback Jimmy Graham New Orleans Saints NFL Popular