We’ve heard of a few players holding out this offseason and David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals is the next on the list. Johnson is entering the final year of his contract and scheduled to make around $1.9 million this season. Johnson is a dynamic player who broke out in 2016 when he rushed for over 1,200 yards while catching 80 passes for another 800+ yards while being named All Pro. Though Johnson looked poised to be the next superstar at the position, he missed almost the entire 2017 season with a wrist injury.
As far as hold outs go this is a good decision for Johnson. He hasn’t made a large amount of money in his career (around $2.2 million) and plays a position where fame disappears with the snap of a finger. Arizona is a team that really has been in a bit of a retooling phase for the last few seasons and with the change in coaches, retirement of Carson Palmer, drafting of Josh Rosen and signing of stop gap Sam Bradford it may be a long season. Johnson could run the risk of being run into the ground by a team that needs a playmaker or look ineffective in an offense with so much uncertainty at QB.
Despite the fact that free agency is often the gold mine for most players I hesitate to give it the same marks for a running back. Though the 49ers stunned the NFL with a somewhat absurd contract for Jerick McKinnon, free agency has more or less sputtered out around $6 million or so a season. While Johnson’s 2016 campaign would certainly earn him more than that the fact is he didnt play in 2017 and only had 125 carries as a rooke. If Johnson were to struggle or look more normal the big money probably wont magically appear elsewhere as teams will point to just one good season that happened a few years ago. Johnson is also not as young as teams like in free agency as he will turn 27 at the end of this season. I would not anticipate that the multiple franchise tag option is a realistic possibility the way it is for other players.
The biggest money, or at least equivalent money, for Johnson probably comes from the Cardinals right now. The memory is still fresh of 2016 and he is currently the most dynamic player on a team that needs that kind of talent. This is really the perfect situation for a hold out as its a situation where both sides probably need each other.
The only thing with this hold out is that Johnson needs to be realistic about his value. The CBA allows players to hold out until a month before the first game of the season without losing an accrued season. A player needs four accrued seasons to be an unrestricted free agent so holding out for too long would cause Johnson to be stuck at three accrued years and only be eligible for restricted free agency. That would be detrimental to any long term financial benefits so that is why the hold out needs to start now with a finite end date set for early August. To get a deal done in that timeframe the two sides cant be so far apart that no deal can get done. That defeats the purpose especially if the team does fine the player for any missed time. If the end game is similar to what LeVeon Bell would like then the hold out is probably a pointless one.
Devonta Freeman of the Falcons signed for $8.25 million a year last summer and is probably the player to work off of. Freeman did not have a season as strong as Johnsons 2016, but had a more consistent overall career and is younger. Both were mid round draft picks. The Cardinals have done a few generous contracts in the recent past (namely the Tyrann Mathieu and Jermaine Gresham contracts) that could help boost the value and there can be some argument to be made that the McKinnon deal has some foundation to it but I’d imagine all of that leads to upside offers in the $9 million per year range. You can get creative with back end money that probably wont be earned to boost the APY if need be, but I would not anticipate a market buster (though Ive certainly been wrong on that front plenty of times before).
So we’ll see where this ends up but as a hold out this makes sense and my guess is that a deal should get done that makes both sides happy.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.