The Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the NFL Players Association were dealt a setback Wednesday when an arbitrator ruled that he can only be considered a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag designation.
The NFLPA had filed a grievance arguing that Graham was used as a wide receiver often enough to qualify for the more lucrative receiver tag. But arbitrator Stephen Burbank disagreed and now the NFLPA is reviewing his ruling, and will advise Graham on his options, which could include an appeal.
Graham’s case is being closely watched around the league because it could set a precedent for negotiations involving players who fill diverse roles in their teams’ offensive or defensive schemes. For example, some outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme could argue their right to receive the higher defensive end tag.
NFL franchise tags, which allow each team to keep one prized player who is due to become a free agent, were set this year at $7 million for tight ends and $12.3 million for receivers.
Burbank, who is also a University of Pennsylvania law professor, found that Graham could fulfill the standard duties of a tight end when he was lined up in the slot or within 4 yards of an offensive tackle, as he was for most of his snaps.
Burbank further pointed out that defenses usually accounted for Graham as a tight end, regardless of his alignment, by assigning a linebacker or safety to cover him.
‘‘Like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot,’’ Burbank’s ruling stated. ‘‘The defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player’s position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions.’’
Burbank indicated there could be merit to the NFLPA contention that Graham cannot be considered a tight end when he does in fact line up as a wideout. However, because both sides stipulated that Graham lined up within 4 yards of an offensive tackle for nearly 55 percent of his snaps, Burbank said he did not need to address the minority of instances in which offensive formations employed by Saints coach Sean Payton placed Graham at a wider distance from the offensive line.
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement states that franchise tags should be applied according to the position at which a player lines up for the majority of his snaps.
Graham has skipped offseason practices while holding out for a new, long-term contract. A favorable ruling from Burbank would have enhanced negotiating leverage for Graham, who last season led the Saints with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 TDs.
Spokesman Greg Bensel said the Saints would have no comment on the ruling, and Sexton did not respond to a request for comment.
In its statement, the NFLPA said: ‘‘We will also continue to assist Graham and his representation as necessary to help the player reach a fair long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints.’’
Alonso out for year
Kiko Alonso’s season is over before it even began after the Bills starting linebacker was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his left knee.
General manager Doug Whaley provided the update in a statement released by the team on Wednesday, a day after Alonso was hurt while working out in Oregon. Whaley said Alonso will require surgery to repair a torn ACL, and ‘‘will likely miss the 2014 season.’’
The Bills did not provide any details as to how Alonso was hurt.
Alonso was an NFL defensive rookie of the year contender last season after being drafted in the second round out of Oregon. He led the Bills with 159 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions while barely missing a snap in playing all 16 games.
After playing in the middle last season, Alonso was moving to the outside linebacker spot as part of the Bills’ shift to a 4-3 defensive scheme under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. The position switch was also sparked in part by the Bills’ signing of run-stopping specialist Brandon Spikes, a former Patriot who is better suited to play in the middle.
Alonso had hip surgery this offseason, which limited him in participating in spring practices. But he was expected to be ready for the start of camp.
The owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres have hired a high-profile investment banker to lead their potential bid to buy the Bills.
Three people familiar with the hire confirmed that Terry and Kim Pegula have retained Steve Greenberg, of Allen & Co., which is regularly involved in sales of sports teams.
The Pegulas have not publicly said whether they will try to buy the Bills, who are on the market after the team’s owner and founder, Ralph Wilson, died in March.
The Bills were last valued by Forbes to be worth $870 million but their sale price could go much higher because NFL teams rarely go on the market.