The NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement has largely made training camp holdouts a thing of the past. By codifying significant daily fines, docking a regular-season game check for each preseason game missed, and placing limitations on the accrual of service time toward free agency, this CBA has mostly made the prospect of a holdout too cost-prohibitive for players.
But something’s a bit different this year. Six veteran players began camp as no-shows, including four—Saints receiver Michael Thomas, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, and Jaguars edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue—who are or were frustrated with the terms of their slotted rookie deals. In addition, left tackle Trent Williams is staying away from Washington’s camp, while Texans edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney has refused to sign his franchise tender, so he’s officially not under contract.
Thomas’s holdout worked: On Wednesday, less than a week into camp, he and the Saints reportedly agreed to a deal with $19.25 million in average annual value and $61 million in guarantees (though the breakdown of full guarantees hasn’t yet been reported). I’ll explore why Thomas had the upper hand to get his money in a bit, even though the Saints had never paid a skill position player other than a QB more than $10 million a year, and even though they notoriously always seem to be tight against the cap.
The consternation of Thomas and the other three rookie-deal holdouts is a honking indicator that the rookie pay scale, a feature new to this CBA, extends for far too long. Drafted players must sign four-year contracts that contain predetermined salaries and bonuses, with a fifth-year team option for first rounders. And players are forbidden from negotiating their second contracts—typically their most lucrative opportunities—until after Year 3. Along with the franchise tag, it’s possible for teams to keep some players from maximizing their earning potential until their sixth or seventh seasons—in a league in which the average career lasts for approximately five seasons.*
So are this summer’s holdouts a sign that players are starting to recognize they might have more bargaining power than they may have previously realized? Former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner thinks so:
“Mack” is a reference to Khalil Mack, the pass rusher extraordinaire whose holdout last summer forced a trade from the Raiders to the Bears, along with a market-setting contract that includes $23.5 million in average annual value, $60 million in full guarantees, and $90 million in rolling guarantees. Mack’s power play came just days after defensive tackle Aaron Donald secured $22.5 million in AAV and $50 million fully guaranteed from the Rams—the culmination of a 2017 holdout that ended just before the start of the regular season, followed by a holdout last summer than resulted in the kind of deal Donald had been seeking.
This offseason, then, saw wideout Antonio Brown force a trade by making life completely intolerable for the Steelers. Brown also managed to torch his trade value, thus reducing the Steelers’ return for one of the game’s best playmakers to a third- and a fifth-round pick. Oh, and Brown also convinced the Raiders to give him an $11 million raise and $30 million in full guarantees. It was an astonishing flex of player strength, and it was followed two days later by the Giants’ trade of Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, which prompted this reaction from Banner:
“The NFL is going to become more like—it’s not going to become like, it’s going to become more like—the NBA than we’re used to seeing,” Banner said late last week on The Rich Eisen Show. Banner said players are becoming increasingly aware that they have the leverage of possibly withholding their labor. He pointed out that the top of the market for most positions has not kept pace with the enormous growth in the salary cap, which has grown 53 percent since 2013. (Before Mack’s deal, Von Miller’s $19 million in AAV had been the standard for edge rushers—on a contract Miller signed three years ago.) In the last 12 months, however, that’s begun to change, with players at other positions that had been lagging (safety, inside linebacker, right tackle, wide receiver) setting substantial new benchmarks.
“For years now, teams are carrying over massive amounts of money” in cap space, Banner told Eisen. “Why should a player be sitting there taking a deal for, let’s say, $15 million a year when he thinks he’s worth $18 [million] because he hopes the team is going to spend it on the rest of the roster, and what they do instead is they carry it over to the next year? They’re really waking up to all of this.”
So what does all of this mean for the six players who chose to skip camp? Do they have enough heft to get their respective teams to meet their demands? Let’s start with what worked for Thomas before taking a look at the others.
Thomas had the most leverage of the four holdouts still on their rookie deals. He and Antonio Brown are the only receivers in the league to post at least 90 catches, 1,100 receiving yards, and five receiving TDs during each of the last three seasons. The Saints’ offense was second in DVOA last season, and third in passing DVOA; Thomas led the NFL with 125 catches, and no other receiver on the Saints’ roster had more than 28 (though RB Alvin Kamara did have 81). Thomas was also among the most efficient wideouts in the league, with Football Outsiders ranking him third in DYAR. As a second-round pick entering his fourth season, Thomas was due to earn just $1.1 million this year. He reportedly wanted to top Beckham’s league-best $18 million AAV, if not also to get to $20 million per year—just as he did. But before the deal was finalized, the Saints showed their hand: Last week, GM Mickey Loomis publicly referred to Thomas’s absence as “a reflection on the job we do.” This kind of talk, believe it or not, can be used against management in negotiations.
As for the cap concerns, Brees signed a below–market-rate extension last year ($25 million in AAV) with voidable years to reduce his short-term cap number. And the Saints have drafted well in recent years, which is how a lot of teams with pricey QBs can control costs. Before Thomas’s deal, New Orleans had about $12 million in unused cap space, per NFLPA records. And it looks like they structured things to keep Thomas’s cap hits low in 2019 and 2020:
It now should be pretty easy for Thomas to write off the daily fines of $40,000 the CBA mandates for training camp absences, though some teams have in the past chosen to waive those fines after a player reports. The Saints may do the same.
Gordon might be in the worst position of the four rookie-deal holdouts. The league’s system of position-based pay is something like soft collusion, especially in this era of players increasingly being tasked with performing positionless duties. Teams are throwing the ball more and more—even on early downs—and no position has been devalued more than running back, even as backs are frequently used as pass catchers who line up all over the formation. It’s a vicious cycle: The rookie scale strangles running backs’ earning power during their best years, the physical toll of playing running back is brutal, and there’s always a surplus of young, cheap, versatile replacements for teams to turn to when it comes time to pay a premier back. Le’Veon Bell overplayed his hand by sitting out last year, though he did achieve his goal of finally getting to free agency—after six years. The analytics community is pretty much unanimous that it’s unwise for a team to pay top-dollar for a running back. Et cetera.
Gordon has averaged 270 touches and 1,300 scrimmage yards across his four seasons—not quite Bell’s 308 touches and 1,600 scrimmage yards per year for his career, but up there. Gordon has also dealt with a variety of injuries (torn meniscus, sprained PCL, bruised knee, sprained MCL) since entering the league. It didn’t help that the Chargers went 4-0 last year in his absence, or that Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson fared fairly well in his place, or that C.J. Anderson came off the street to fill in admirably for the Rams’ Todd Gurley last year, after Gurley got paid and then injured. Gordon is slated to make $5.6 million this year on his fifth-year option, which also calls for fines of $30,000 per day for skipping camp. Banner told Eisen he thinks Gordon should return to camp and wait to see what Elliott gets from the Cowboys, in part because Chargers GM Tom Telesco has a history of driving a hard bargain to avoid setting precedents when players hold out.
Elliott’s situation is similar to Gordon’s because of the position they play, but Elliott has more leverage for a few reasons. For one, Elliott has put up better numbers—he’s twice led the league in rushing, and he averages 401 touches and 2,099 scrimmage yards on a per–16-game basis, which is Bell territory. For another, Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones has referred to Elliott as “the straw, if you will, that stirs our drink. He’s a key part of what we’re about.” Elliott, who has reportedly flitted off to train in Mexico while his teammates are in camp, is due to earn $3.8 million this season, with the Cowboys holding a $9.1 million option for 2020. The Cowboys also have the threat of the franchise tag beyond that, in addition to looming deals that have to be done for quarterback Dak Prescott, cornerback Byron Jones, inside linebacker Jaylon Smith, right tackle La’el Collins, and wideout Amari Cooper—who now has the high bar set by Thomas’s deal to bargain with. Owner Jerry Jones likes to retain and to pay his home-grown talent, and while he told reporters on Monday that “you don’t have to have a rushing champion to win the Super Bowl” before signing 30-year-old Alfred Morris as insurance, he also has a history of caving: In 1993, Jones gave in to Emmitt Smith’s demands after Dallas started 0-2 during what would become a run to a repeat Super Bowl title.
Ngakoue had 29½ sacks in his first three NFL seasons; only 10 other players had more during the same span. Among those who had less? The Chargers’ Joey Bosa, the Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence, the 49ers’ Dee Ford, the Lions’ Trey Flowers, and Clowney. Per ex-agent Joel Corry, only Lawrence had more pressures (142) the last two seasons than Ngakoue (132). And Pro Football Focus says Ngakoue had more combined sacks and hits on the quarterback than any edge rusher in the league the last two years. This is where I ought to mention that Lawrence ($21 million AAV), Ford ($17 million), and Flowers ($18 million) all signed big-money deals this offseason. Ngakoue, as a third-round pick, is slotted to collect a mere $2.03 million on the final year of his rookie contract this fall. He shares an agent with Gurley. Overthecap.com’s Jason Fitzgerald is on record as predicting Ngakoue could command as much as $21 million in AAV.
Williams’s situation is the most unique of the bunch, and not just because he’s entering his 10th season and he signed what was a market-setting contract back in 2015, only to since watch as six left tackles have surpassed what he’s making in AAV. Williams is pissed at the Skins because of the way their medical staff handled what turned out to be a benign tumor on his scalp in the offseason. He’s demanded a trade or an outright release, with CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reporting that he’s “vowed not to play for” Washington again. The Skins on Monday signed ex-Raider Donald Penn, who himself held out two years ago—and got a new deal that was later restructured last summer, with a pay cut. Penn missed 12 games last season with a groin injury. It’s not clear whether Williams will ever forgive the Skins, who continue to lead the league in general shitbaggery.
Like Le’Veon Bell the last two years, Clowney’s in a take-it-or-leave-it position at the moment, because of the franchise tag. The tag rules gave the Texans an exclusive negotiating window with him until July 15, but once that date passed the two sides were forbidden from discussing a multiyear contract until after the season. Because Clowney’s not under contract, he won’t cost himself any money until and unless he starts missing game checks during Week 1 of the regular season. He would then have until Week 11 to report or to miss the season entirely. One final screw-you from the tag system to Clowney: The tag figures slot players like him as either linebackers or defensive ends, with no distinction made between inside and outside linebackers. As a result, Clowney’s outside linebacker tag tender would pay him $15.443 million for the year, versus $17.128 million for defensive ends. As Banner said, players might be starting to realize they have more leverage than they previously knew. But Clowney had been limited to bargaining solely with the Texans for a little more than three years. And for the next few months, he’s forbidden from negotiating at all. This will be his sixth NFL season.
* An earlier version of this story referred to a published study of injury data that has since been debunked.