ENGLEWOOD — It's the $5 million question that's rumbling through NFL front offices and locker rooms alike: Is All-Pro Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints a tight end or a really big wide receiver?
It matters to men like Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas of the Denver Broncos, who's up for a big pay raise and could be facing a franchise tag himself after the upcoming season.
The Saints gave Graham the franchise tag for about $7 million as a tight end, the position he's been listed at for his entire four-year career — and which he himself lists on his Twitter account.
Graham contends that because he more often is split out away from the tackle, he is really a wide receiver. And, after all, he did lead the league with 16 touchdown catches last season. That franchise tag is worth about $12.3 million.
The sides stated their cases in an arbitration hearing earlier this week in Louisiana and are awaiting a ruling from arbitrator Stephen Burbank.
Thomas is understandably interested in the outcome.
"I've kind of been keeping ... an eye on that situation, obviously, because it could probably come back to affect a lot of us tight ends," said Thomas, who is scheduled to make $645,000 this year. "But the way I feel about it is, 'Does two letters next to your name on the depth chart really determine your value to a team?'"
When it comes to franchise tags in the NFL, it certainly does.
The Saints note that Graham made the All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl as a tight end and was drafted as a tight end. Graham points to the 86 passes he caught for 1,215 yards last season — numbers any wide receiver would envy.
"Does it matter if he's a tight end, or if he calls himself a slot receiver or a running back?" Thomas said. "I mean, if you're going to have double-digit touchdowns and contribute a bunch of yards in the receiving game, I just say that you're a guy that makes great plays and are a value to your team. So I don't know why the argument necessarily comes down to either you're a tight end or a receiver. I think that if you're a guy that makes plays, that's how you should be valued."
It's because top-tier wide receivers make much more money than the game's best tight ends.
"That's true. So I guess that's why it's a topic," Thomas said. "But I'll say again: I think if you're a basketball player, they wouldn't say, 'Ah, you're a power forward. Really look out for those point guards.' So I don't think that the position matters. I think if you're a guy making plays for your team, then that should be your value."
Denver general manager John Elway has opened talks with representatives of both Thomas and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who are entering the final year of their respective rookie deals and would like any deal to get done by the start of training camp next month.
Demaryius Thomas, who has two dozen TD catches since Peyton Manning's arrival and was the lone bright spot for Denver in the Super Bowl, figures to command around $60 million over five years after putting up back-to-back stellar seasons that vaulted him to elite wide receiver status.
Yet, it was Julius Thomas who was the key to Denver's record-breaking offense last season. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound late-bloomer was a matchup nightmare for defenses and the bulls-eye for many of Manning's biggest moments last season when he earned his first Pro Bowl honor.
He caught the quarterback's 51st TD throw that broke Tom Brady's single-season record, one of his dozen TD receptions that broke Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe's team record for tight ends. And he came up huge in the Broncos' two wins that got them to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
Broncos coach John Fox said the tight end position has evolved over the years to the point that "it's like another receiver" rather than "an offensive tackle lined up to block."
That's not to say Fox is going to dive into the debate over whether a tight end actually is a wide receiver.
"I'm not getting into that," Fox said with a chuckle. "I'll leave that for other people."