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NFL's backward salary system hurts elite players like Jimmy Graham

by | CBS Sports
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Wednesday's ruling by an arbitrator that Jimmy Graham is a tight end instead of a wide receiver comes as no surprise to me and should come as no surprise to anyone else, including Jimmy Graham.

He is not a wide receiver. But he also is not a traditional tight end. Call it the Flex, Joker, Tight Wide or Tighty Widey position for all I care, but whatever you call it, he is among the three elite players at his position. He makes a strong case, if you judge by statistics, to be considered the best of those three elites. His statistics speak for themselves, and we will return to the numbers in a bit.

For now I want to share my experience during my contract negotiations with the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2001, my contract was up for renegotiation. In the three seasons leading up to the negotiations, I put up unprecedented numbers that weren't comparable to any other tight end in the league at the time. My agent was Tom Condon (Jimmy Graham's agent now) and he tried to get me paid like a wide receiver -- or according to what my production had been. The Chiefs' GM at the time was Carl Peterson, and his battle cry during the lengthy negotiation was, "you're not a receiver so I can't pay you like one."

Back and forth we went, the franchise tag was bestowed upon me, I missed all of camp but I ended up receiving the biggest contract for a tight end in NFL history. I should have been happy, right? Hell yeah, I was happy! I got paid and didn't have to go to a Dick Vermeil training camp.

Five years later, my contract was up again and the story played out the same, except this time I didn't get to miss training camp. Once again, I was blessed to sign the biggest contract for a tight end in NFL history. And once again I was happy, but something chewed at me as to how the whole system was working.

It didn't seem fair that no matter how many passes I caught or how many touchdowns I scored, I was considered a "lowly tight end" and would never be paid anywhere close to a salary as high as the elite wide receivers.

For those of you who don't know, the NFL is the only major professional sport league that slots players' salaries by position. For example, no matter how many sacks a linebacker puts up he will never be paid like an elite defensive end (example: Terrell Suggs). No matter how big a hole an offensive guard opens up for a 1,000-yard running back or how well he protects the franchise quarterback, he will never get a payday like the one he would get as an offensive tackle (example: Will Shields).

In the NBA, if you average 20 points and 10 rebounds, you will get a blockbuster deal no matter what position you play. In baseball, if you hit .300 or earn a Gold Glove, you'll be flying private jets for the rest of your life. I can think of a few terms to describe what's going on in the NFL like "backward," "lack of common sense" or "behind the times" but the one that makes the most sense is "discrimination." Salaries should be set based on production and contributions, not positions.

Let's go back to Graham's numbers with the New Orleans Saints. Last season he had 86 catches for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, which led the NFL. He averaged 14.1 yards per catch, which is an elite receiver average. Over the past three seasons he has averaged 90 receptions, 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns, not to mention a league-leading 36 TD receptions over that span.

Compare those stats to the elite receivers -- and more importantly in this case his value to the team -- and you will see why Graham deserves to be paid according to his production and not his position. He will undoubtedly becomes the highest-paid tight end in history, and if managed right, he will never have to worry about money again.

But let's do some quick math. I anticipate he will sign somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million per year over five years, which is great money. But an elite wide receiver will make $14 million-$16 million per season. Let's say we even round down and give that receiver $13 million a year over the same span of five years; Jimmy Graham will miss out on $15 million as a tight end that he would make if classified as a receiver. Let's not forget that Graham is young and could easily play another 10 years, which means the same thing could happen to him for his next contract. He would miss out on that same $15 million again.

That is $30 million he won't get because he's called a tight end and because the NFL slots salaries based on position names instead of by production. So in light of Wednesday's decision against Jimmy Graham, it's not just a loss for him but a loss for every player that wears the shield.

Obviously, the way this system works plays in the favor of the teams and the NFL as a whole.

I don't anticipate it will be changed anytime soon, but for DeMaurice Smith and the Players Association, this issue should be a top priority the next time the CBA is negotiated. Because when it's all said and done, this issue isn't all about money -- it's about what's right.

Tony Gonzalez set NFL records for touchdown receptions (111) and receiving yards (15,127) for a tight end during his career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons from 1997-2013. He is now an analyst for The NFL Today on CBS.

Jimmy Graham is the No. 1 tight end who should be paid like an elite receiver. (USATSI)
Jimmy Graham is the No. 1 tight end who should be paid like an elite receiver. (USATSI)

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