Jimmy Graham is a Tight End
So Jimmy Graham is a tight end. Officially. What we all knew anyway has been confirmed now by NFL arbitrator Stephen Burbank but what interested me about the ruling was how little analysis and exploration there was of what it means to be a modern day tight end in the NFL.
The ruling seemed to focus on what meetings Graham attended, the fact that he and his agents referred to him as a tight end and even that his twitter bio did likewise rather than turning attention to what is happening on the field. We already knew that he was designated a tight end, but what does that mean anymore if the position spends the majority of its time masquerading as another?
The most disappointing aspect of the ruling wasn’t the final conclusion it arrived at, but the logic used to determine it. Burbank wrote that “physical attributes and skill sets” are more important to defining a position than the alignment.
Not only is this an implicit acceptance that by alignment Graham could well be considered a wide out, but it reduces the level of analysis down to “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”
The NFL certainly works according to body types to a large degree, but players can never be defined strictly along those lines and there are always players at every position bucking the textbook prototype. Given how closely the tight end position has begun to resemble the wide receiver spot, there is an ever-increasing band of players that could easily fit either side of the divide.
Ladarius Green is well on his way to replacing Antonio Gates as the Chargers’ main tight end. He is 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-time. Kelvin Benjamin was drafted in the first round by the Carolina Panthers to be their new top wide out (in time). He is 6-foot-5, 240 punds and runs a 4.6 40-time.
Physically they are, for all intents and purposes, the same guy, but they play different positions – one is a tight end, and the other is a wide receiver.
Graham has an extra 20 pounds on either of those players, and you’d be searching for a while to find a true wide out that physically matches Graham, but the point is to look beyond Graham’s case and at the dangerous precedent this could be setting. While it might work to define Graham as a tight end because he is built like one, it doesn’t work for everybody.
This was the crux of Graham’s argument. Though he may look like a tight end, he spends the majority of his time split out from the formation playing what we recognize in any other circumstances as wide receiver. In 2013 Graham lined up either in the slot or split wide as the widest man in the formation on 66.8% of his snaps. That is more than two-thirds of the time Graham is aligned as what we would astractly label a wide receiver if somebody drew it up on a chalkboard.
The counter argument often used is that a true wide out doesn’t spend any time at all with his hand in the dirt, in-line as a conventional tight end. While that’s not strictly true (plenty of WRs end up with a handful of snaps a season where they line up as a TE as we will see in a bit, even guys like DeSean Jackson), it is certainly never close to the proportion of snaps Graham does it for. The point remains, however, that he spends at least two-thirds of his snaps playing a role indistinguishable to a wide out, and if we are going to get anywhere we need to accept that as fact, rather than trying to explain it away.
Whether tight end or wide out, Jimmy Graham is a receiving weapon, and that really is the key. His blocking is questionable at best, and the Saints know that, which is one of the reasons he spends so much time split out in the formation.
Instead of accepting the reality that the modern tight end position has undergone a major crossover with the wide out position, Burbank sought to justify Graham as a tight end with arbitrary and abstract concepts, such as lining up within 4 yards of the offensive tackle.
Let’s take a different approach to this and accept that modern tight ends are expected to play wide out for many of their snaps. If you truly want to prove that a player is a WR and not a TE you need to demonstrate that he is closer to one group than the other.
This is a table showing the alignment of every WR and TE from last season (to play 250+ snaps) separated by time spent lining up attached to the formation as what we recognize as an ‘in-line’ tight end, and time split into the slot or out wide, positions we traditionally recognize as wide receiver alignments. The chart doesn’t account for snaps taken at other positions such as in the backfield or lined up at QB, which is why it isn’t just a single straight line, but it provides us with a useful illustration.
As we can see, though some wide receivers did in fact spend no time at all lined up as a tight end, that isn’t true for them all, and guys like Alshon Jeffery actually spent around 5% of their snaps playing what we would recognize as a tight end position. This is why you can’t just claim Jimmy Graham is a tight end because he had his hand in the dirt for more than a couple of snaps in the season – the threshold is much higher than that.
What we do see, though, is a clear gap between the group of wide receivers and the group of tight ends, even those whose blocking role is nominal at best. There is a 14% gap of no-man’s land between the two positions and this is the key. If you wanted to prove a player was actually being deployed as a wide receiver and not a tight end you would need to show that he was at least beginning to cross this divide.
In Graham’s case not only is he not crossing it, but he isn’t even the closest to doing so. Four tight ends last season saw a greater percentage of their snaps split out from the formation than Graham, including Tony Gonzalez, a sure-fire Hall of Fame player, but a guy who in 2013 had lost all of his athletic prowess and got by on a combination of veteran savvy and great hands.
What we can say is that Graham is in a group of players who have branched off from the main pack of tight ends and could have a reasonable case to be termed ‘receiving tight ends’. None of the players in that group is a notable blocker and most are rarely even asked to do it. These are players who are receivers in primary purpose but simply proportioned (and aligned) differently to the average wide out.
Greg Cosell: “If Jimmy Graham was a WR, all the stresses & burdens (the #Saints) put on DEFs would not exist. They exist because he’s a TE.”
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) July 3, 2014
That leads us to this tweet and quote from Greg Cosell, the film guru at NFL Films. While I don’t quite agree (as you can see from my reply to the tweet), I can see the point he is making. Graham is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-time. The reason he is a stress on a defense is because there is nobody on that side of the ball who matches those numbers, and if there is he is likely rushing the passer. The problem isn’t where he is lined up, it’s that defenses simply don’t have anyone who is an athletic match to cover him with.
That being said, it is likely true that he does benefit from the tight end alignment that draws him against linebackers and safeties rather than corners who are usually the best coverage players a defense has, and given the trend towards bigger receivers over the past several years, are used to dealing with big bodies (if not quite as big as a Jimmy Graham).
Some have suggested that Graham can’t win against corners, and that is another argument against him being a wide receiver. As proof they point to the Patriots game last season where Aqib Talib shut him down and Graham was held without a catch on six targets. Despite his gaudy numbers in 2013, Graham was hampered much of the year with a lingering foot injury, and without being able to tell exactly when and how much that affected him, I want to look for a bigger sample size.
For his career Jimmy Graham has caught 66.2% of passes sent his way when he was being covered by a linebacker, safety or defensive lineman. Those passes went for an average of 12.2 yards per reception and he has notched 41 touchdowns, a score on roughly 10% of his targets.
When Graham was covered by a cornerback, the numbers do indeed drop, but barely. He has caught 63.9% of his targets when covered by a corner, with those passes gaining an average of 10.2 yards and roughly 10% of his targets winding up as touchdowns. Logically, you would expect nothing else. If Graham was so easy to shut down simply by putting a corner on him why would a defense ever do anything else?
What might be fair to say is that Graham struggles a bit more against truly elite corners, but that same sentence could apply to any receiver in the league – elite corners are elite for a reason – they can shut down or at least severely limit even the best receiving weapons out there.
The bottom line is that Jimmy Graham is indeed a tight end, but he is one of the league’s best because he is a rare receiving weapon which allows him to be deployed more than most tight ends split out as a wide receiver. The best description of Jimmy Graham is ‘matchup nightmare’, but sadly, the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t have that designation for Franchise Tag purposes.
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