The Tennessee Titans say Jared Cook is a tight end. Statistics indicate he's a wide receiver.
The difference is huge and has potential ripple effects on whether Jimmy Graham of New Orleans becomes one of the highest-paid players in the NFL.
This complicated scenario starts with Cook, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next month. Although Cook has put up only 131 catches for 1,717 yards and eight touchdowns in four years, he is considered a player with great upside because of his size (6-foot-5, 248 pounds) and speed, particularly if he played on a team with a better passing attack than the Titans have managed in recent years.
Titans general manager Ruston Webster has indicated the team wants to keep Cook, either with a long-term contract or by using the franchise tag. If the team uses the franchise tag, the question becomes, is Cook a tight end or a wide receiver?
The franchise tag for a tight end is expected to be approximately $6 million this year. For wide receiver, it's expected to be roughly $10.5 million. That's obviously a huge difference and changes not only the leverage for Cook, but whether the Titans will even consider using the franchise tag on him.
Last season, Cook lined up either as a slot receiver or an outside receiver on 79.4 percent of all offensive plays. That would indicate he is being used as a wide receiver. Sources said that Christina Phillips, Cook's agent, has broached the subject with the NFL Players Association for clarification and might push for Cook to be defined as a wide receiver.
Webster believes otherwise.
"I don't anticipate it [being an issue]," Webster told The Tennessean on Thursday. "He has been a tight end for us."
The problem is there are a number of situations where the league and certainly the NFL Players Association might not agree with Webster.
Beyond that, Graham, who also lines up in slot and outside formations on a regular basis for New Orleans, might be interested in how Cook's situation plays out. Agent Jimmy Sexton declined to discuss the issue.
Graham, who has 215 catches for 2,648 yards and 25 touchdowns in three years, could be in line for an even larger pay day if he is defined as a wide receiver. Graham could easily outpace the six-year, $54 million contract that New England tight end Rob Gronkowski signed last offseason.
At least one source said Graham could eventually ask for a deal worth as much as $12 million annually. Another source indicated that it was "important" to Graham that Cook win on this matter.
As for the issue with Cook, a number of sources – and recent history – indicate he could get the wide receiver definition.
The league's collective bargaining agreement states that "the tender will apply to the position in which the player participated in the most plays."
Veteran agent Eugene Parker said he dealt with this issue with defensive lineman Richard Seymour when Oakland put the franchise tag on him in 2010. At the time, Seymour had played at both defensive tackle and defensive end. There was a significant difference between the tags for those spots, and the end position – at which Seymour was ultimately designated – called for a one-year salary of $12.3 million.
"It was pretty simple, the league had us count up the number of plays he played at both spots and that was the tag he got," Parker said. "It worked out well for us."
Baltimore linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs and Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley went through similar situations where the sides eventually split the difference on issues of the franchise tag, essentially agreeing that there was at least some ambiguity over how the tag is administered.
"If you go in front of a special master or whoever handles this and argue this, it's probably going to be a hard argument to win," one league source said. "It's pretty much, where did he play?"
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