With NFL training camp just a few weeks away we begin the period where more and more players begin to open up about the potential of holding out if they are not offered a new contract. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon is the most recent on to state he will hold out and demand a trade if he does not receive a new contract.
Running back contracts are always controversial in large part because the position breaks down so much faster than others and that many would argue that it’s the most easily replaceable position in the NFL. For the most part contracts have reflected those views for the last five or six years until there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four year contract extension worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years at $13 million a season. Those two, along with Le’Veon Bell, make up the elite portion of the market. The next tier maxes out at $8.25 million a season and includes the names Devonta Freeman ($8.25M), LeSean McCoy ($8.01M), Jerick McKinnon($7.5M), and Lamar Miller($6.5M). The third tier is around $5 million and lower and that should not be a factor here.
Where does Gordon fit in those top two groupings? I’m not sure if he fits in any of them to be honest. From a statistical standpoint he is more in the Freeman camp and I could see the Chargers considering Gordon to be at that level or slightly lower in an offer. From the standpoint of where he was drafted and the fact that he has not been a disappointment he would probably argue he is closer to the top tier. His agent called the Chargers offer disrespectful but that could mean a number of things. $4 or $5 million is disrespectful, but something like $8.5 million is probably a fair start to bridging the gap between the top two tiers.
If the Chargers did in fact make a true lowball offer it probably indicates that they have no intention of keeping him long term. It is an understandable position. Of those names listed above Johnson had a terrible first year, McKinnon was hurt and is way down on his team’s depth chart without ever taking a snap, Gurley may have a long term injury, Freeman has been hurt, and nobody gets excited about Miller. Basically McCoy is the only one to be a proven productive player during the body of his deal. This extends well beyond these few names. Chris Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Ray Rice, DeMaro Murray, etc…The list goes on and on. Even players who did deliver high end seasons like an Arian Foster dealt with constant injuries. If the Chargers are in this camp they likely made a token offer with some reasonable injury protection knowing he would likely turn it down so they can at least say they tried.
If it is a fairer offer then the ball goes to Gordon’s court as the $8M+ offer would indicate a willingness to at least be in a longer term relationship. Regardless of where Gordon was drafted the fact is he has never had a dynamic season like Johnson, Gurley, or Bell. He doesn’t measure up to them as a receiver. He doesn’t have the name value or cache of those players. My assumption is the Chargers also can not offer more than $11 million a season, which is what the team pays star wide receiver Keenan Allen. While re-signing Gordon would certainly show the locker room something positive, matching or surpassing the Allen contract would likely lead to another unhappy player looking for a new contract. That doesn’t serve any purpose and Allen is the more important player to the team.
Turning down a good offer and going into free agency, even off a good year, is no guarantee of success. Unlike other positions where free agency leads to some absurd contracts running backs haven’t really done anything special. Bell talked of $15 million a year or more and failed to surpass the Gurley deal and even Bell’s big number had more to do with a franchise just desperate to make some noise than a team really wanting him. McKinnon stunned everyone, but that was under $8 million a year. Murray, who was a rushing leader, could not top $8 million as a free agent. Most often the best offer comes from the original team.
As far as a holdout goes I don’t see a risk for either side. The Chargers could fine Gordon if he holds out but teams tend to waive those fines if everyone gets back on the same page before the regular season begins. Gordon does not need an accrued season towards free agency so he can stay out if he wants and not jeopardize his free agent status (this is different than a player with just three years in the NFL and holding out which would jeopardize his free agency).
It is doubtful that a contract impasse would go into the regular season. Gordon is set to make $5.605 million this season, which is the second largest number of his career (as a rookie he made nearly $6.5 million). His salary ranks 6th in the NFL this season. Every week he misses he would lose 1/17th of that and that is not something that will be not be forgiven. If he misses the entire season his contract tolls and he remains on the Chargers and loses out on free agency. The biggest risk for the Chargers is Gordon not being in football condition, which has happened with holdouts in the past, but with a contract on the line in 2020 odds are he would stay in great shape.
If no deal is reached both the franchise and transition tag would be options next year. We have those estimated at $12.6 and $10.3 million respectively next year. Gordon’s side should know from the initial offer if the tags are in play or not next year.
My guess is if the sides really want a deal done they would meet around $10 million a season. If not Gordon will likely be a Charger at the start of the season and playing by week 1 with an eye on free agency the following season.
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.