How a Smoothie Could Help Jimmy Graham (and a few other tight ends) Get Paid Like an Elite Wide Receiver

Jimmy Graham, tight end for the New Orleans Saints, has been in the news quite a bit recently. But not for the reasons you might think an NFL player would be in the news (ahem, Josh Gordon); instead, Graham is a topic of discussion because of conflict over classification of his position. Is he a tight end first and a wide receiver second? Or a wide receiver first and a tight end second? Or maybe a primary option at both positions?

On July 2, an arbitrator ruled that Graham is a tight end, ostensibly ending the debate about his position. This ruling is important because Graham’s position determines how much he will be paid as the Saints’ franchise player in 2014. On July 14, Graham appealed the ruling, asking to be named a wide receiver1.

Wide receivers2 tagged with the franchise label earn \$12.31 million per season, whereas franchise tagged tight ends make \$7.04 million — a \$5 million difference. Further, Graham’s classification may drastically affect the amount of leverage he has in negotiating a long-term contract.

So, the \$5 million question becomes: Does Graham deserve to be paid like an elite pass catching wide receiver? As always, the data is telling.

A Statistical Smoothie
We applied a statistical technique called latent class analysis (LCA3) to create groups based on the average receptions, yards, and touchdowns for all wide receivers (WR) and tight ends (TE) from 1994 to 2013 (totaling 738 players). An easy way to envision data analysis using latent class analysis is to think about what happens after you blend fruit into a smoothie — sediments of blended fruit begin to separate and group into layers in your glass. Each of those layers is a group in LCA; players who are similar to each other are grouped together into “classes” based on similarities in their average receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Let’s start at the bottom — with the seeds.

 Figure 1. Average touchdowns and average yards for every wide receiver and tight end since 1994

Class 4 “The Seeds”: Blocking TEs, Special Teamers, Kick/Punt Return Specialists
The largest class, with 417 players (166 WRs and 251 TEs), is comprised of guys who don’t catch many passes, like blocking TEs (e.g., Brandon Manumaleuna) and return specialists who rarely play as WRs (e.g., Trindon Holliday). Overall, players in this class largely do not impact their team’s passing offense, but this is not to say that they don’t have an effect on the game in other ways. However, they do settle at the bottom of the glass when looking at average receptions, yards, and touchdowns.

As you might expect, Jimmy Graham is not in this class; the average season for players in this class (7 catches for 80 yards, and less than 1 TD), far below Graham’s typical production.

Class 3 “The Pulp”: Red Zone Target TEs, Specialized WRs
Players in the next class, which includes 157 players (53 WRs and 104 TEs), fare considerably better over their careers than those in Class 4. However, by and large, these players’ primary job is still not to catch passes. This group is comprised of TEs who are mostly used to block, but may offer a big target for short passes in the red zone (e.g., Bubba Franks) and specialist or slot wide receivers who may average a large number of catches, but don’t necessarily accumulate yards or touchdowns (e.g., Brandon Stokley). Simply put, these players have some impact in the passing game, but are not their team’s primary passing weapon.

Unsurprisingly, Graham is also not in this profile, outperforming players in Class 3 who average 27 catches for 329 yards, and 2 TDs per year.

Class 2 “The Juice”: Primary Pass Catchers
In Class 2, we begin seeing guys whose offensive impact in the passing game is more prominent. This class of pass catchers consists of 120 players (95 WRs and 25 TEs), including many average to above average WRs (e.g., James Jones) and some well known pass catching TEs (e.g., Vernon Davis).

 Figure 2. Average receptions, yards, and touchdowns by class with examples

While these  players’ offensive impact is considerable, at 44 receptions, 584 yards, and 4 TDs per year, Graham’s impact is still greater.

Class 1 “The Froth”: Elite Pass Catchers
As one might imagine, this elite class is the smallest, with only 43 members (39 WRs and 5 TEs). Players in this class include big name WRs like AJ Green, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Terrell Owens. Interestingly, only five TEs made it into this class of elite pass catchers — and Jimmy Graham is one of them (along with Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, and Jason Witten).

The average season for these guys over the course of their careers is pretty gaudy: 69 receptions for 968 yards and 7 TDs4. So it would appear that Jimmy Graham is distinct from most other TEs, and is in some pretty select company among other pass catchers who rack up the most catches, yards, and TDs.

What does it Mean?
The conflict over Graham’s classification might be the first of its kind, but looks unlikely to be the last. Pioneered by freak athletes like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, a hybrid tight end-receiver who can dramatically impact the passing game is becoming more and more valued in today’s NFL.

So is Jimmy Graham a tight end or a wide receiver? According to this analysis, Graham is in a group of super-elite pass catchers that includes the best of the best wide receivers and only four other tight ends (Gates, Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, and Jason Witten). It seems, then, that Graham is closer to a receiver than a tight end. Despite the NFL’s ruling, Graham’s production puts him near the top of all pass catchers — and suggests that he should be paid like an elite wide receiver rather than a tight end.

1 http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000365164/article/saints-jimmy-graham-appeals-ruling-that-hes-a-tight-end

2 http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/reports-arbitrator-rules-jimmy-graham-a-te-could-cost-him-5-3-million-070214

3 http://www.statistics.com/index.php?page=glossary&term_id=467 and http://members.home.nl/jeroenvermunt/ermss2004f.pdf

4 Remember, that’s an average season over entire careers; it takes into account both players’ rookie season and seasons later in their careers when they may not have produced that much. Further, that average includes wide receivers and tight ends.