Looking at the NFL Training Camp Holdouts

There are not many ways for a player to get the attention of his team when he is looking for a new contract so the best way is to hold out. So I wanted to look at the reasons things sometimes come to this and where the current players likely stand.

I usually put teams in a few categories for why they have not extended a player. The biggest reason is simply financial. Rookie contracts, and the majority of holdouts are rookie contract players, are cheap and veterans who deserve extensions are underpaid. Teams have no real incentive to offer an early extension to a player especially since so many players are willing to sign extensions later in the season or prior to the start of free agency, plus there is the threat of the tag, so there is no risk to the team in waiting. Generally the teams here do want to keep the player longer than the term of his current contract.

There may be some teams that are either a bit cash strapped or need to allocate a good deal of money into other resources on the horizon. While teams certainly make a ton of money they do have budgets and their football people have to operate within those budgets if they want to continue to have a job. The timing just may not be right for those teams to offer contracts to players, especially those with multiple years left on their current deal. I guess this can also extend to salary cap constraints though those are so rare these days I think you can just throw that out.

There are teams that simply do not want to set any kind of precedent that can impact them at a later date with contracts. Teams may have a policy that won’t allow them to extend a contract that has multiple years remaining. Once you open the door for one player it becomes harder and harder to not do that for every player if you want to keep a happy locker room.

Teams may have also decided that you are not in their future plans. They are happy to ride out a cheap contract with a player but do not see the value in keeping the player at a market rate contract. They are going to let the player walk as a free agent.

Then you have the valuation battle which can sometimes become combative and standoffish. This is the situation where one side usually puts a price on a player that is either outlandishly large from the agent side or an insult from the player side. These can devolve into a “win or lose” negotiation where you can stop thinking straight and things get nasty.
If a player’s current teams falls into the first group, holdouts will almost always be a success. Those teams want to keep the player you just need to push them into finalizing a contract. As long as the demands are reasonable. In every other category I think its iffy if the holdout will be a success.

Historically the holdout has not been very successful for players. Vincent Jackson, who likely faced a valuation and precedent situation, and Logan Mankins, most likely in the precedent category, missed large portions of the season and received nothing that year. Kam Chancellor missed a few games and returned having to honor his old contract. Aaron Donald’s holdout a few years ago was unsuccessful and you won’t find many players better than him. With the exception of Jackson, who received a franchise tag and then left San Diego as a free agent, all ended up remaining with the teams they held out on, it just happened a year later when the team was better prepared to offer the contract.

The player that most comes to mind with having a holdout work was Darrelle Revis back in 2010. Revis came off arguably the best season of all time for a cornerback and wanted an extension despite having three years remaining on a rookie contract. From the Jets perspective there was a precedent issue here and also a valuation issue that was going to leave a giant gap between he and the team. The situation, which played out on HBO’s Hard Knocks, got pretty ugly with the two sides more or less jabbing with each other as “unnamed sources” in public. Revis held firm with the holdout which was about to extend into the regular season when the Jets head coach pretty much made it known they needed him on the field. Much like a situation with Emmitt Smith nearly 20 years earlier with the Cowboys, the threat of losing football brought the sides back to the table and a deal was reached allowing both sides to say they were the winner. Just a few years later there were threats of another Revis holdout and the Jets just traded him away.

One of the risks for players in a holdout is that they forfeit salary for games missed and they will lose an accrued season toward free agency. For players with four year contracts this would make them a restricted free agent when their contract expires. For those who were first rounder’s they will be unrestricted as long as they only holdout once in the five years.

While the RFA tag is millions of dollars less than a franchise tag the reality is most teams would still use the franchise tag on a player even though they are restricted. There is likely fear that the lower compensation of the RFA tag would lead to a player leaving so it would be better to just use the franchise tag and protect their investment. While more expensive the franchise tag is going to be, in almost all cases, for less money than the player is worth.
The other threat is that contracts will toll if a player misses a season. Players under contract cant be like Le’Veon Bell, who was unsigned while tagged, and miss the year with no repercussions. How much time a player can miss is a valid question and I don’t think there is a concrete answer, but the safe answer is week 10.

So how will the five current holdouts play out? Here are some thoughts on the five players.

Yannick Ngakoue- This contract not being done is the one that surprises me the most because it seems like a pretty easy one to do. Ngakoue is one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL and he plays at a position where the market is relatively set. Khalil Mack is at the top at $23.5 million and has set a ceiling for at least another year if not two. DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark both signed this offseason for $21 and $20.8 million a year respectively. Neither were first round picks which makes them reasonable comps for Ngakoue, a third rounder.

Pass rushers in free agency are considered very valuable. Mario Williams was the last true elite player to reach free agency and signed a record setting $16 million a year contract with Buffalo. In today’s NFL that would be worth about $25 million a season. Olivier Vernon signed a deal worth about $20 million in 2019 dollars. Trey Flowers, who is not an impact player, just signed for $18 million a year while Za’Darius Smith signed a stunning $16.5 million a year contract with the Packers. The market gives no reason for players at this position to accept a low contract.

Waiting on this position also doesn’t benefit the team. Lawrence was tagged once and a second tag led to the $21 million contract. The Chiefs were cautious with Justin Houston despite 21 sacks and two Pro Bowl nods and he exploded in his walk year leading to a contract that would be worth $22 million a year today.

Based on reports the Jaguars made an offer in the $19 million a year range which would indicate that they don’t fall into the financial concern, don’t want to keep the player, cash constrained, or precedent categories. That offer is on the low end as the market should be anywhere from $20.5 to $22.5 million a year which leads me to think it’s a valuation thing that could devolve if the Jaguars are firm on what is not a real market number unless you are considering the Danielle Hunter outlier as a true market contract.

Overall that doesn’t make any sense to. The Jaguars have done a number of high priced contracts through the years for all kinds of players ranging from well known free agents like Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson to not as well know homegrown players like Brandon Linder and Telvin Smith. Maybe internally they are afraid of a $20 million a year player or showing a willingness to pay a top market position with Jalen Ramsey likely looking for a new deal next year, but this is the type of player you usually build your team around and extending him sends a good signal to the locker room. This may be a situation where the team believes that because the 3rd round player has never seen a big payday the way a 1st rounder did that they can force his hand to accepting a bad contract but if that doesn’t work the Jaguars will likely end up paying more in the long run or losing a valuable player in free agency.

Michael Thomas- I have a feeling that this holdout falls into the first category with an outside chance at the valuation being an issue if it drags on. Thomas at one point was reportedly looking to be the first $20 million a year receiver in the NFL and that is a number that I could see the Saints balking at, at least this summer.

We have two examples we can look at with the Saints where players were looking for record setting money and in both cases they led to franchise tag situations. One was Drew Brees who was looking to be the first $20 million QB back in 2012. In 2014 tight end Jimmy Graham wanted to be paid like a top wide receiver and was franchised before ultimately “settling” for a $10 million a year contract that would make him the highest paid tight end in NFL history. From those examples I would say that the Saints could make Thomas the highest paid receiver of all time, but it likely would not be this year and they would have him play out his rookie deal before making that leap next season.

For Thomas to get that contract this offseason I think he would need to wait to see if the market is pushed by Julio Jones or AJ Green, both looking for contract extensions. The current high water mark is Odell Beckham at $18 million, unless you accept Antonio Brown at $19.8 million a year due to his trade and subsequent contract modification with the Raiders. Since I don’t believe any team looks at the Brown contract that way, you are talking a $2 million a year leap to get to $20 million and that is a far jump. Even from a historical standpoint no modern contract cracks $20 million in inflated APY (IAPY). Calvin Johnson’s 2012 extension is the last to hit that number.

If Thomas is simply willing to become the highest paid receiver at say $18.5 million a year I have to think this gets done sooner rather than later. If Green and/or Jones come close to $20 million this probably gets done. If the number is $20 million and nobody else comes close I don’t think it becomes standoffish this year but could get there next year when they tag him and then argue over a number that the Saints will ultimately agree to in the end.

Ezekiel Elliott- I wrote about Elliott the other day and I’m not sure where this one ranks. The Cowboys have extended players early so I don’t think precedent is an issue. They do have what are likely more pressing contract concerns in Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper which could mean they feel a little constrained financially. There is also a valuation aspect that could be at play.

It should be a given that Elliott would want a four year extension worth roughly $60 million. That is a huge number to give to a running back. Dallas obviously has a lot invested in Elliott and in many ways I think they see him as the face of the franchise and the most important offensive player, but they are also aware of the negatives that come with signing a running back long term.

Though they play entirely different positions, Dallas ultimately was burned by giving Dez Bryant a large contract and watching his career pretty much vanish due to injury. To some extent they were also burned by the way they handled, from a salary cap standpoint, Tony Romo’s contract when he made the turn into risky age territory. Both are just reminders of how things can blow up and while those may have both been bad, unexpected situations there is far more expectation to expect the bad with a running back.

If there is a disparity in value here it really is a situation where both are right. Dallas is right if they think no runner is worth more than $10 million a season. Elliott is right that given the top market extensions he should receive $15 million a year. I’m not sure if you can find much common ground between the two sides if those numbers are close to reality.

Of all the players I think Elliott holding out into the regular season makes the most sense of any of the current holdouts. Dallas, I believe, can be a bit more emotional than other teams and if they get off to a bad start with him on the sidelines he has a better chance of Dallas just keeping their eye on the short term and doing whatever deal Elliott wants.

Melvin Gordon- Gordon’s situation is similar to Elliot’s except he doesn’t have the cache of Elliott. Whereas Elliott may have the ability to fall back on the emotional strings of ownership, Gordon probably doesn’t have that.

Given the recent contracts signed by “feature” backs I would assume that Gordon has a market in mind of $13 million or so a year. I can not imagine the Chargers even being in that same stratosphere. I think the point of compromise there is $10 million a season, assuming that the Chargers do want him long term. It would not be stunning to me to find out that the Chargers are happy with the other options on the team and see no long term future here unless he signs for cheap.
Of all the players holding out Gordon has made the most noise of staying away for an extended period of time. If this drags into the regular season this likely will break down into the trade me category. I would imagine if they can find the right trade partner that they would make the move if they are indeed happy with the depth on the team. Gordon has a pretty substantial financial risk, forfeiting about $330,000 a week if he misses games, but he may see something in the Bell situation from last year that makes him confident in his decision.

Trent Williams- Williams’ holdout is the lone holdout that may fall more on the player side as there are many reports that he is just unhappy with Washington and wants out. Now there also have been some reports that a contract modification would also make him report so I don’t think you can totally rule out that the two sides come to the table but at the moment this is probably more in Williams’ court than anything else. In any instance I could see the team dug in on not re-opening the contract for a number of reasons.

This situation feels a lot like the Duane Brown one with the Texans in 2017. Brown wasn’t happy with his situation a missed a good chunk of the year before finally reporting. He was quickly traded to Seattle where he played out the season and they received his extension the following year. Brown ultimately gave up nearly $3.9 million to get the trade talks moving, but in return did get $14.25 million guaranteed.

Williams would be giving up close to $650,000 per week and potentially forfeiting close to $100,000 in bonuses. If he was traded he would probably land a deal similar to Brown’s deal with Seattle. If there was a compromise here it would probably be to include some type of bonus paid if on the 53 man for 16 weeks and/or a guarantee of next years salary.