Every year, there are a couple of veteran players so dissatisfied with their contracts they are willing to miss the beginning of training camp in an attempt to get a new deal. This year isn’t any different, except that 2019 could become the year of running back discontent.
Melvin Gordon, whose rookie contract expires after the season, issued to the Chargers last week. He doesn’t intend to show up until one of these two things happen. The 2015 first-round pick is scheduled to play under his $5.605 million fifth-year option this season. The Chargers report to training camp on July 24.
Ezekiel Elliott is unless his contract is addressed. He has two years remaining after the Cowboys exercised their option for a fifth year in 2020. Elliott is making just over $3.85 million this year and his option year salary in 2020 will be $9.099 million. The reporting date for the Cowboys is July 26.
Productive running backs taking a stand contractually as their rookie deal progresses shouldn’t be too surprising. Running back is one of the NFL‘s most physically demanding positions. Since there’s also less longevity for running backs, the window of opportunity for a big payday is smaller.
As an agent, I was involved in two lengthy holdouts with wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Smith’s 38-day holdout in 2002 resulted with him getting a new contract from the Jaguars at the end of the preseason. McCardell’s dispute with the Buccaneers in 2004 lasted 82 days before he was dealt to the Chargers right before the trading deadline.
My holdout experiences give me a certain appreciation and insight about contract disputes.
Players need to objectively assess their leverage and understand the risks and potential ramifications before deciding to hold out. When we had a client contemplating a holdout, we would arrange conversations between him and other clients we had who considered holding out or had been through one and recommend that he speak with another NFL player he knew well that had been faced with the same decision.
We would attempt to gauge the client’s level of commitment beforehand by detailing the worst-case scenarios with his potential holdout, since some players don’t have the attitude or mindset for a lengthy holdout. The client would be given his team’s history with holdouts. We would also provide him a league-wide analysis of holdouts over the previous five years, which included the success rate of holdouts.
Gordon seems to have the mindset for a lengthy absence. He was sympathetic to Le’Veon Bell sitting out the entire 2018 season rather than play under a $14.544 million franchise tag.
Both the Chargers and Cowboys have Super Bowl aspirations, which cuts in the running backs’ favor. Elliott has more leverage than Gordon, although he isn’t in a contract year. Cowboys chief operating officer and executive vice president Stephen Jones recently called Elliott the straw that stirs the drink. Elliott is the focal point of Dallas’ offense.
Gordon is a very good running back in his own right but isn’t as indispensable as Elliott. The Chargers have running back depth with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson. Gordon and Ekeler are considered one of the NFL’s best running back tandems. Obviously, the Chargers are a better team with Gordon, but going 4-0 last season while he was injured can’t be ignored. Three of their wins came against teams who had winning records last season (Chiefs, Steelers, Titans). There are also durability concerns with Gordon. 2017 was the only time he played all 16 regular season games.
The penalties under the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement are severe for players withholding services they are contractually obligated to perform once training camp starts, which are an effective deterrent for most players unhappy with their deals.
A team can fine a player a maximum of $40,000 for each day of training camp missed. Training camps typically run from 35 to 40 days. Missing all of camp would subject Elliott to approximately $1.5 million in fines. A player that signed his contract as an unrestricted free agent can be fined one week’s base salary (1/17th of salary) for each preseason game missed in addition to the $40,000 per day.
The CBA mandates a slightly different consequence for first-round picks holding out when playing under their fifth-year option, like Gordon. It’s a fine up to $30,000 per day and the weekly salary penalty applies. One week’s salary for Gordon is just under $330,000. Gordon would be facing a loss of almost $1.325 million in salary if he missed all of the Chargers’ preseason contests.
A year of service towards free agency (i.e.; an accrued season) isn’t earned when a player doesn’t report to his team at least 30 days prior to NFL’s first regular season game. The reporting deadline this year is August 6. It doesn’t matter if a player would otherwise qualify for an accrued season if he misses this deadline.
The date is only somewhat relevant to Elliott because he has three accrued seasons. Four accrued seasons are necessary for free agency. If Elliott had a lengthy hold out this year that was unsuccessful, like Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald had in 2017, another lengthy holdout in 2020 would need to result in a new contract. Otherwise, Elliott would be a restricted free agent in 2021 because he would lack the four accrued seasons necessary to become an unrestricted free agent when his rookie contract expired.
Getting the year of service isn’t a concern for holdouts with four or more years of accrued seasons since these players already have enough service time to qualify for unrestricted free agency. Gordon would fit into this category.
A team can also recover a portion of a player’s signing bonus. 15 percent of the prorated amount of signing bonus can be recouped on the sixth day of a training camp holdout. It’s 1 percent for each additional missed day with a maximum of 25 percent of the prorated amount during training camp. An additional 25 percent can be recovered with the first missed regular season game. After four missed weeks, a team can recover 1/17th of the prorated amount for each additional week of the player’s absence. The maximum a team can recover in a season is the entire prorated amount of the player’s signing bonus in that contract year.
Signing bonus recoupment would be applicable to Elliott. There isn’t any bonus proration connected to Gordon’s fifth-year option.
A holdout is ultimately a test of both sides’ resolve. Once a player misses the beginning of training camp, there usually isn’t much dialogue between a player’s agent and the team early on when there is a contract impasse. Teams typically approach a holdout as if the player is injured, look for replacements at his position either internally or from available free agents and evaluate how the team performs with him absent. Smith’s holdout was aided by Jacksonville’s first team offense struggling to move the football without him (16 punts in 17 offensive possessions).
Most holdouts don’t mind missing the daily grind of training camp, but as the regular season gets closer, a player may start having second thoughts about his decision. If meaningful dialogue on a new contract resumes, it may not be until the middle of the preseason. There were hardly any conversations with the Buccaneers during most of McCardell’s holdout because both sides were firmly entrenched in their positions.
Savvy teams will refrain from talking to the media about the player besides an obligatory statement about being unwilling to publicly comment on a player who isn’t in training camp, or that the player’s contributions are valued and welcome him returning to the team when he is ready to honor his contract. The longer a holdout drags on, the more of a distraction it can become with coaches and teammates being constantly asked about it by the media before and after games and practices.
A high-ranking team executive once told me that since holdouts usually are more personal to players, a team should never publicly embarrass or humiliate a player during the process no matter how illogical his position may seem to them. They’ll have to deal with the fallout once he returns to the team if he doesn’t get a new contract.
Fans don’t take a player’s side in a contract dispute with a team, in most cases. The public can have difficulty relating to a player being unhappy with what is a lucrative contract in their eyes or rejecting a substantial offer. Unusual circumstances are required for public sentiment to be with the player.
A major obstacle a player must overcome is a team’s concern about establishing a precedent of giving into a player’s demands for a new contract through a holdout. Although teams should be able to easily make distinctions based on each player’s particular circumstances, they don’t want to send a signal to the other team members that they could get rewarded by holding the team hostage.
The Chargers are probably going to be more sensitive about the ramifications of caving to demands than the Cowboys. 2016 first-round pick Joey Bosa’s option year is in 2020. He’s already had the longest contract dispute for an incoming NFL player since the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011. The dispute was over whether the salary guarantees in Bosa’s deal should contain offsets and the payment schedule of his signing bonus. Bosa missed 31 days before signing his contract.
Along those lines, some teams have a philosophy that they won’t have substantive discussions about a new contract while the player is engaged in a holdout. The Raiders didn’t extend offensive tackle Donald Penn’s contract in 2017 until he returned to the fold shortly after the second preseason game.
Holdouts extending into the regular season are extremely rare. There have only been two in the last few years with players under contract. Safety Kam Chancellor held out 54 days in 2015 before returning to the Seahawks without any changes to his contract. Left tackle Duane Brown’s holdout from the Texans in 2017 lasted nearly three months. Brown didn’t get a new contract either; he was traded to the Seahawks about a week later.
Once a player decides to end an unsuccessful holdout, some teams will reduce the fines accumulated as a gesture of goodwill, especially with someone who is one of the most important players on the team or a veteran that commands a lot of respect among his teammates. The Rams waived Donald’s training camp fines, didn’t recover the portion of the signing bonus they were entitled to collect and opted against voiding his contract guarantees with his 2017 holdout.
A majority of holdouts don’t result in the player receiving a new contract. Veteran running backs have had varying degrees of success holding out under the current CBA. Chris Johnson’s 35-day training camp absence in 2011 resulted in a four-year, $53.975 million contract extension from the Titans. He was a three-year veteran with two years remaining on his rookie contract.
Maurice Jones-Drew’s 38-day holdout in 2012 didn’t prompt the Jaguars to give him a lucrative third contract when he was entering his seventh NFL season. He returned to without any adjustments to his deal.
Should Elliott decide to hold out, he seems to have more favorable conditions than Gordon. There may not much interest in history repeating itself given Elliott’s impact offensively. It took Dallas starting 0-2 start in 1993 when trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions for Emmitt Smith to get the contract making him the NFL’s highest-paid running back that ended his holdout. Jason Garrett, who was a teammate of Smith’s, doesn’t have job security as the lame duck head coach of a team with high expectations. When a head coach’s job is potentially on the line with an underachieving season, he can be apt to put pressure on his team’s general manager and/or owner to do whatever it takes for the holdout to return before the regular season begins.
The Cowboys are also more comfortable with the prospect of paying Elliott than the Chargers are Gordon. Jones has previously acknowledged that long-range budgeting contemplates a new Elliott contract at some point while recognizing the impact of Todd Gurley’s deal. The four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through salary escalators) containing $45 million in guarantees the Rams gave Todd Gurley last July reset the running back market. It’s conceivable that Elliott could supplant Gurley as the NFL’s highest-paid running back on his next contract.
Gordon runs the risk of overplaying his hand, especially if viewing the three-year, $39 million extension with $31,882,500 of guarantees David Johnson received from the Cardinals right before last season started as a salary benchmark. One of Gordon’s agents, Damarius Bilbo, has characterized the Chargers’ offers .
Unfortunately for Gordon, the steady decline of running back salaries prior to Gurley’s deal will continue to be reflected in the franchise tag next year. The 2020 running back number projects to less than $10.5 million with continued salary growth as in recent years. The number is currently $11.214 million after peaking at $12.12 million in 2017.
Knowing that Bell, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets, wasn’t a highly sought-after free agent this year, the transition tag could be part of the Chargers’ calculus with Gordon. The 2020 transition tag, which would only give the Chargers a right to match any offer sheet Gordon signed, projects to a little over $8.5 million.
Forcing a trade from a team that views itself as a Super Bowl contender might not be any easier than getting a new deal. The Chargers would likely set the draft choice compensation to acquire Gordon at a level where there would be limited interest from other teams. Since it’s a contract year for Gordon, the new team would probably have give Gordon the type of contract the Chargers didn’t.
The chances of either player, particularly Gordon, sitting out the 2019 season are remote. It would be counterproductive contractually. The Chargers would likely have Gordon’s contract tolled for a full year under the extension provisions in paragraph 16 of the standard NFL player contract thanks to an arbitration decision relating to Joey Galloway’s 101-day holdout in 1999. This would mean Gordon’s deal wouldn’t expire until after the 2020 season instead of the 2019 season.
Seattle lost a grievance attempting to get Galloway’s contact extended for an additional year under paragraph 16 because he held out for the first nine weeks of the 1999 season. The arbitrator didn’t give a clear standard for how many missed weeks are necessary to trigger tolling.