June 24, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Lions' Eric Ebron suggests new pay scale for multi-skilled hybrid tight ends

Eric Ebron: 'I believe we should either start being called a hybrid or joker.' (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Berea, Ohio — Lions rookie tight end Eric Ebron understandably tweeted last week that he was interested in the decision in New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's arbitration hearing that will determine whether he should be paid like a wide receiver.

During a Play 60 event at Cleveland Browns headquarters as part of the NFL Rookie Symposium, Ebron said Graham's decision will have a historic impact and suggested the league add a new pay scale for hybrid tight ends.

"I believe we should either start being called a hybrid or joker," he said Tuesday. "I think the tight end name is traditional, but it's overplayed into what people assume a tight end is."

Ebron, 6-4 and 245 pounds, described the “joker” position as "someone who's big and strong enough to block on the offensive line, but who's fast and shifty enough to be a receiver."

Although Graham's is the first such debate over the tight end position, the Terrell Suggs case provides some precedent for Graham. In 2008, the Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker argued he should be paid as a defensive end. The difference in pay was less than $1 million, and the two sides settled on a salary closer to that of a defensive end.

Graham's receptions (86) and receiving yards (1,215) ranked in the top 15 in the NFL in 2013, and he led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns. The Saints used the franchise tag on the first-team All-Pro tight end, which would pay him $7.035 million in 2014. But his camp is arguing he should be paid as a receiver; they make $12.3 million under the franchise tag.

Graham and Ebron -- the Lions hope -- impact the defense differently than the traditional tight end, who primarily blocked but was a capable receiver. As the position has changed to benefit bigger pass catchers, Ebron thinks the league should look differently at tight ends. The rookie also tweeted last week that he spoke to Graham.

"We're probably now evolving into a more dynamic player in the offensive scheme, and it's just fun to see someone so brave-hearted take a step up and step up for his position," Ebron said of Graham. "It's not only him. He's stepping up for all (NFL tight ends). It's just interesting to see what the NFL will do about it, how they'll handle it.

"I believe a player of his caliber, who's done so much for the Saints, deserves more. That's just me, so I really want to pay attention to it. It's always good to know situations like this because eventually this will be history.”

The NFL Players Association presented its case on behalf of Graham last week, and an arbitration will consider its point against that of the NFL with a decision expected in the near future.

No matter the result, both Graham and the Saints are hoping to earn leverage before reaching a long-term extension.

Ebron's rookie contract is worth $12.25 million over four years, and the Lions have a team option for a fifth year. But when his contract expires, he could be in a similar situation as Graham considering how often he'll line up as a receiver.

"In the next four or five years, it could (affect me)," Ebron said. "I'm not really high up on money, but more money is never a bad thing. I'm paying attention to it, but it is what it is. I can't wait to see how it plays out."

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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