A franchise fight worth watching

Jimmy Graham has an arbitration hearing next week that will be worth watching for many hybrid players. Might Anthony Barr eventually be one of those?

Whenever players and the league clash on issues, it becomes news. From the genesis of free agency to revenue sharing to salary caps, watershed topics get traced back to their flashpoint. Ever since the USFL "won" $3 in a conviction of the NFL in a Minnesota courtroom, many challenges to the authority of The Shield have been waged on the streets of the Twin Cities, so we know about the early stages of what will become long-term issues.

Next week, an arbitration hearing (not in the Twin Cities, but strikingly similar in nature) is going to be held concerning the New Orleans Saints placing the franchise tag on Jimmy Graham. Graham was drafted as a tight end. In every NFL game he has played, he has been listed as a tight end.

He's no tight end.

Anyone who has ever seen Graham play knows that he is an athletic hybrid that is genetic freak in the current state of the NFL. He's not an in-line blocker. He's a downfield threat. He's a massive wide receiver who requires safety coverage and cornerback high-point skills.

By any reasonable description, there is little realistic difference between Graham and Calvin Johnson. They're both matchup nightmares. They're both game-changers who must be double-covered at the risk of defensive peril.

They are both matchup nightmare wide receivers.

The problem is that Graham has always been referred to as a tight end – regardless of how unconventional. Why is that an issue?
The 2014 franchise tag for a wide receiver is $12.31 million. The franchise tag for tight ends is $7.04 million. That's a pretty significant difference.

Jermichael Finley was expected to be the first test case of the franchise WR/TE disparity, but the reality of his situation was that he was a classic tight end with receiver skills, not a wide receiver. Graham is a different story.

The reason what happens next week might impact the Vikings is that there is a defensive side of the same argument being debated.

What is Anthony Barr going to be in the NFL? He was drafted as a linebacker. He was given a linebacker's number. He's a linebacker.

Or is he?

The first time fans see Barr play, one of the first impressions will be that he is a standup pass-rusher who doesn't have a number in the 90s.

Everything you see in watching Barr is that he is either a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. However, as things currently stand, he is a 4-3 outside linebacker.

While the difference between the franchise tag for defensive ends, whose job description is primarily based on setting the edge and rushing the passer, and linebackers isn't nearly as lopsided as the WR/TE debate. The franchise number for defensive ends is $13.12 million. For linebackers, it is $11.46 million. But the numbers fluctuate every year and there is going to come a time when an outside linebacker is going to petition to be paid defensive end money because they do the same job. Terrell Suggs challenged that decision, but was signed long-term before things got ugly.

Graham may (rightfully) have to dig his heels in the sand to make a point for future players in his situation. If he prevails with the arbitrator, there will be a lot of re-examining of the roles players have on a team. Who may be the next test case?

Barr is an outside linebacker in what is viewed as a 4-3 scheme. But, like Graham, he's an outside linebacker by name, but sometimes not by job description. Will he be the next test case? If he's that valuable in five years, it would be a very good thing for the Vikings, and this year's ruling with Graham could be important to him.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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