All About The Dez Bryant Holdout Threat

With the deadline to sign a franchise player to a long term contract less than 48 hours away, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has issued an ultimatum that if he isn’t signed he is going to miss training camp and miss games. Dez reportedly wants a contract in line with Calvin Johnson’s megadeal with Detroit ($16 million a year with $48 million guaranteed), which is neither in line with the standard receiver market nor apparently Dallas’ valuation of Bryant. With Dallas not budging on a deal, this seems like a last ditch effort to force the Cowboys hand. It is a threat that will likely ring hollow in Dallas, but it has certainly set the world of Twitter on fire so let’s look at some of the particulars here. 

Just to get this out of the way- I dont think anyone can argue against Dez Bryant the football player. His last three years have been arguably the best three year stretch for players at this stage of their career in the last 10 years. Since 2012 he has caught 273 passes for nearly 4,000 yards and has an astounding 41 touchdowns. He has become the most important receiver on the team with over 27% of team targets and 40% of receiving touchdowns in the last two years. Dallas certainly needs him now which is why the threat of a holdout holds some merit for him. But there are so many factors at play that there is much more that works against him than for him.

You can only pull so hard on a team that is in “win now mode” when it comes to a contract. Dallas is just pulling out of a nightmarish salary cap situation and has completely changed the way they do business from years past. They know all too well the dangers of playing for today with no regard for tomorrow. While they clearly need Bryant this year they need him at a reasonable cost from this point forward. If they don’t it becomes the cap mess of the early part of the decade. This is what the franchise tag was designed for and why the Cowboys opted to use it.

Dallas can easily dig in their heels and wait Bryant (or any player in this situation for that matter) out. Once the July 15 deadline comes and goes there is nothing meaningful Bryant can do for his contract moving forward. After July 15, Bryant is locked in to a one year contract. Bryant can ask for a no franchise provision in the one year contract, better terms for the year, some money up front, etc…but the ability to gain a long term extension is gone. Bryant can not sign a long term contract until after the conclusion of the regular season.

For each week that Bryant misses in the regular season he gives up around $754,000 in earnings. That is a significant figure. Would anyone really trade the possibility of say $3.5 million over the first month+ of the year for a no franchise designation the next season?  Absolutely not. Bryant also is impacted by the fact that at least with the $12.8 million franchise tag that he is guaranteed over $15 million next season if tagged again. That number can reduce if he misses time and has his contract prorated for the season. This are just some of the reasons the Cowboys have so much leverage.

Refusing to play on the tag doesn’t ensure free agency for Bryant next season either. The Cowboys could still tag him again. The only difference is a team signing him would only have to give up a first and third round draft pick as compensation rather than two number one picks. So this is not really a path to long term freedom either. And again how many players would give up $12.8M for the right to free agency?

The time for Bryant to have held out was last season, where there was much less at stake financially for him. Last season Bryant played for about $2 million in salary. The fortunes that could have awaited in free agency or an extension would have made it worth sitting out for an extended period of time. Under that type of contract there was nothing that would have prohibited a long term deal from Dallas and the no franchise provision would have been worth a few weeks salary. He’ll give up more in three weeks now than he would have earned all last season with a far less potential for a better outcome.

Though fans hate the idea of a holdout there is a time and a place for it in the NFL. But it is not when under the franchise tag. The tag is so limiting that the threat rings hollow. Had he, DeMaryius Thomas, or Justin Houston done this last year odds are at least two of the three would have gotten a long term deal by now. Threatening now to do it just doesnt work. Hoping to prove collusion has a limited chance of working. Their leverage existed in 2014 and they opted not to use it.

Players expect their teams to do right by them at times, but you have to survey the situation when you make those determinations. When Dez’ agent saw the contract that Tyron Smith sign with the team last summer it should have been very clear the kind of contract that Dallas now envisions for their top players.  In Denver, Thomas should have seen the treatment of Elvis Dumervil and the players allowed to walk away to realize that the Broncos play hardball. There are other teams that would have likely handled it differently but you have to know who you are dealing with and in this case they are dealing with tougher teams.

Trying to negotiate contracts using a contract as a guideline that 31 other teams don’t consider a valid contract (Johnson’s deal in Detroit) is very difficult. Everyone wants to come away feeling somewhat good with the contract they sign, but there is basically no concession on the player’s side in that contract. Massive full guarantees, prorated bonuses, potential void years, and a massive APY all in one package rarely happen. Outside of the QB position the only contracts that really fit the bill in today’s NFL are Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, and Adrian Peterson. There are some other solid contracts around the NFL (Darrelle Revis, Charles Johnson, etc…) but those others stand on their own.

It’s very difficult for teams to agree to match those contracts. Johnson and Peterson both piggybacked off a contract (Larry Fitzgerald and Chris Johnson, respectively) but few others have been able to do it. Johnson had the Lions over a barrel due to cap mismanagment and Peterson was the face of the franchise which helped them. Bryant really doesn’t fit in either category. Years ago the Jets were embroiled in a major dispute with Revis, who was arguably both the face of the franchise and their best player. Revis’ goal was to match the absurd contract at the time of Nnamdi Asomugha. Revis made it all the way to the start of the season holding firm until his head coach basically demanded he be signed. The famous “band aid” contract compromised on some cash flow, but the reality was the Jets did not accept the Asomugha deal as valid and Revis didn’t reach that haul in 2010.

Bryant can not be fined for missing anything since he technically is not under contract to the Cowboys. He isn’t holding out until he signs the franchise tender itself. If he does stay out past 10 weeks he will be deactivated for the season. I would consider that very unlikely to happen. There is simply nothing for Bryant to gain here, especially at the cost of $750K per week. But for all the big name players on those rookie option years now and in the future they should watch this carefully and really analyze their options before deciding to report to camp in a few weeks.

  • Good summary, Jason. A few things to add:

    It’s understandable if the agents for Bryant and Thomas looked at Johnson’s contract as their starting point for negotiations. That’s because a smart agent knows that his initial offer should be higher than what he actually expects to get, just as a team’s initial offer should be less than what the team actually expects to pay.

    Mike Klis is reporting about Thomas’ situation, that Thomas’ agent is seeking more than Johnson’s deal, on the argument that the salary cap has risen, so teams should be able to accommodate more money for Thomas, because he is considered top five at his position.

    But as you point out, most teams view Johnson’s contract as an anomaly, because it came under the previous CBA. Bryant and Thomas were drafted under the old CBA, but were late first-round picks than Sam Bradford (the No. 1 pick that year), so their rookie salaries were far less than Bradford’s. Hence, after the new CBA took effect, Bryant and Thomas had little to no chance of getting a Johnson-type deal.

    Bryant, of course, has more reason to be concerned, because the Cowboys have no other pending free agents in 2016 who are worthy of the franchise tag (barring one of them playing at an All-Pro level, and even then, the Cowboys may view them like they did DeMarco Murray). Thomas has less concern, because Von Miller will be a free agent in 2016, and if he isn’t extended by then, the Broncos will certainly tag him.

    If Thomas doesn’t come to terms on an extension, he’s likely to find that not one team will give him a Johnson-type deal. Most teams are moving away from the mindset of handing out massive guarantees unless (a) the player is a quarterback or (b) the player is considered a game changer.

    For example, J.J. Watt’s deal, while not at the level of what Mario Williams originally got, still has positives for Watt that will guarantee him a good portion of the total value of the contract. But Watt had some leverage because he is considered a game changer — as in, arguably a top-five player regardless of position, certainly top 10. Can the same be honestly said for Thomas or Bryant?