NFL Analysis: Is Saints Jimmy Graham Really a Tight End?

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I am the first to admit that some of my football watching habits could be viewed as a tad bit obsessive. One of which is my weekly routine of breaking down every play from the previous 49er game to assess everything from route running by the wide receivers to how well each offensive lineman blocked for Alex Smith and Frank Gore. Yes, I confess it may seem a little odd to watch the game in such detail, however I find it is the best way to understand how well, or how poorly my beloved team played that week.

While reviewing the divisional playoff game between the Saints and Niners I focused my attention on both offenses in hope of understanding just how impressive the Saints offense can be. Of course the stellar play of Drew Brees was evident from the start, as his pocket awareness and his ability to control the opposing defense with his eyes is something to behold.

Another thing that piqued my interest is how Sean Payton uses his Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. At 6’7 and 265 pounds, Graham has the build of a prototypical tight end, with the athleticism of a wide receiver and the ball skills of a basketball power forward. He uses his size and quickness to overpower opposing defenders, and his excellent hands and leaping ability make him almost impossible to defend. Yet, after watching every snap of that game I have come to the conclusion that Graham is not a tight end, but rather a big wide receiver in disguise.

Of the 36 offensive plays run by Brees and the Saints in the first half, Jimmy Graham lined up in the slot or out wide as a receiver in nearly 70% of the plays. He lined up as a tight end to block on a run play only once, and perhaps more damming, he was taken out on three separate running plays in favor of a run blocking replacement. Conversely, Vernon Davis lined up on the line of scrimmage as a tight end on 75% of his team’s plays, and was the key catalyst on three of Frank Gore’s best runs.

One may wonder why is it important debate the merits of whether or not Graham should be listed as a wide receiver and not a tight end. After all, the game is constantly evolving and other tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Jermichael Finley are used in similar ways for their respective teams.

From a fantasy perspective, allowing Graham to be listed as a TE and not his true position of WR is an unfair advantage for his owners, as it turns an otherwise weak position into an area of strength. In real football terms, Graham’s inclusion to the NFC Pro-Bowl team as a TE and not a WR was a disservice to Vernon Davis, Tony Gonzalez, and other players who actually play tight end. From a monetary standpoint, millions of dollars could be lost or gained by a player being incorrectly listed by position, as the top contracts for each position vary greatly.

For the sake of argument, consider Ronnie Brown’s 2008 season in which he lined up as a quarterback in the much-maligned wildcat formation for the Dolphins. Brown was listed correctly as a running back, despite the fact that he did take many direct snaps from the quarterback position. Would it have been right for Tony Sparano to list Brown as a quarterback? Brown would have come close to tying the single season rushing TD record for QB’s.

Another example is defensive lineman William “The Fridge” Perry, and how he was used as a goal line back for the 1985 Bears. His five sacks, 31 tackles and two fumble recoveries would still be running back records today if he was erroneously listed as a tailback and not as a defensive lineman.

Of course these two examples are a stretch and Jimmy Graham is far more of a tight end than the Fridge was ever a running back. However it does highlight a gray area in how the NFL allows coaches to list offensive skill position players. It may also surprise some readers to know that this is not the first time that Sean Payton and the Saints have listed a wide receiver as a tight end. Marques Colston was listed as a tight end in his rookie season in 2006, giving enterprising fantasy owners an edge over their rivals.

To fix this problem, the NFL should distinguish each player’s position based on a total number of snaps. For example, for player to be considered a left tackle they must line up as a left tackle at least 70% of the time. Another solution would be to adapt to the pass happy nature of the modern game and lump tight ends and wide receivers together for the purpose of NFL awards and fantasy sports. Either way, I feel that this issue needs to be addressed next season.