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  • Looking at the contract situations—and likely resolutions—of the four stars who still haven't reported to their teams
By Andrew Brandt
August 21, 2018

As the preseason nears completion (thankfully) and “real” football is poised to begin, a few players linger outside the 2,000+ now toiling in sweltering training camps and meaningless preseason games. One (Le’Veon Bell) is unsigned with the other three (Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Earl Thomas) ostensibly under contract. All are using their absence as their preferred form of civil disobedience in hopes of causing a reaction from their team’s front office in the form of a contractual upgrade and/or trade.

Unfortunately for these players, even their elite status does not give them the leverage in their “negotiation.” Rather, it is the team—the side having the existing contract to enforce—that ultimately holds the cards, despite the magnitude of these players taking a stand. Even the media has largely turned away from them in their plight, focusing on the many stories about players in camp.

Let’s examine the four situations.

The (unsigned) franchise player

It is déjà vu all over again for Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers. Unable to reach common ground on a long-term deal for the second straight season, the Steelers used the franchise tag weapon to, for the second consecutive year, “rent” Bell for a year (at $14.54 million) with no security beyond that. Bell’s response, as last year, has been to not sign the franchise tag contract, allowing him to sit out camp with no repercussions.

While the Steelers must publicly feign disappointment about Bell’s absence, they are quietly content knowing that Bell will be fresh in September when the games count. Even if Bell were in camp, he would not be exposed during preseason games. Now, there is zero chance of injury.

The Steelers are also confident of having Bell when they need to, as Bell and his agent have admitted Bell will show before the season opener to sign and start earning his $855,000 in weekly pay. This is the cat and mouse game that he and the Steelers have played for two consecutive training camps. And, despite appearances, no one is worse off for the wear. In fact, Bell is better off.

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The superstar that’s negotiating

The Los Angeles Rams’ front office has been quite active this offseason: making trades, acquiring free agents and, most importantly to this discussion, securing contract extensions for young and rising stars such as Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and–just this week–Rob Havenstein. Still not part of that activity, as of this writing, is a contract extension for one of the best players in the NFL: defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

While the Rams have received criticism for prioritizing Gurley and Cooks (and Havenstein) before Donald, I can defend them here, having been a team contract negotiator for a decade. The Gurley, Cooks and Havenstein deals were “ripe” to be done; the Donald deal, for a variety of reasons, has not been. And you do the deals that you can do. The Rams and Donald’s agent have not been able to reach common ground despite almost two years of negotiations.

The two sides are naturally mum about their talks, but my strong sense is this negotiation is about Donald wanting “free agent money” while being under contract another year (at $6.9 million). What may be the most discussed data point in this negotiation is the six-year, $114 million contract signed with the Dolphins in 2015 by Ndamokung Suh who is, ironically, now playing next to Donald. The $60 million guaranteed that Suh secured at signing is still the gold standard for all defensive players and, to complete the circle, the same agency that represented Suh with the Dolphins—CAA—is representing Donald.

I presume Donald is seeking that level or above and the Rams are resisting, telling Donald’s agents the obvious: Suh was a free agent when he got that deal; Donald has a year left on his contract. Despite the peanut gallery yelling: “Pay the Man!” the Rams do not—and should not—want to pay free agent prices for a player under contract for another year, with the possibility of the franchise tag(s) after that. This is where I see the rub of this negotiation.

Although nothing appears imminent, one does get the sense that a deal is closer this year than last. However, as I know so well, the last stages of these negotiations are always the hardest. As with Bell above, we may have another Groundhog Day situation with Donald reporting without a contract, like last year, and the Rams again forgiving all the training camp fines as if this six-week interlude never happened.

In any case, you know my saying: deadlines spur action. A deal (or no deal) will happen (or not happen) very soon.

The superstar that’s not negotiating

Aaron Donald is not the only star defensive tackle on a California team holding out in search of a new deal; Khalil Mack of the Raiders is doing the same. Unlike Donald’s situation, however, there appears to be no reciprocal interest from the team in a new contract.

According to reports, there has been no contact between the Raiders and Mack’s agent. I happen to know both parties extremely well—Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and I worked together for nine years in Green Bay, and I negotiated dozens of contracts with Mack’s agent Joel Segal. More importantly, they know each other extremely well from dealings over the past 25 years. I find it hard to believe there is a lack of communication. That does not mean, though, there has been negotiation.

The Raiders seem content to let Mack play under the last year of his contract, at $13.8 million, with the threat of the franchise tag(s) after that. And they expect he will report at some point before the season with his tail between his legs. And, in the harsh world of the business of football, they are probably right.

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Mack’s situation has churned the rumor mill with potential trade scenarios (Green Bay is often mentioned as a trade partner). Sorry to rain on this parade, especially for my many Packer Nation followers, but I don’t see it.

A trade for a player like Mack—or Odell Beckham, the subject of such rumors earlier this offseason—is much more complicated than people know, requiring two difficult and complicated negotiations. First, the Raiders and the acquiring team would have to agree on trade compensation. More difficult to negotiate would be a second agreement on a new contract between Mack and the acquiring team.

Mack is obviously unhappy without a new deal; he would have similar unhappiness without a new deal on a different team. Further, acquiring Mack without a contract extension would not be good business, giving up valuable trade compensation for what could be a 16 game tenure with that team.

I have previously been critical of teams acquiring players in the last year of their contract without simultaneously negotiating an extension. This happened with a couple of quarterbacks acquired in the past couple of years—Sam Bradford, acquired by the Eagles from the Rams in 2015 and Jimmy Garoppolo, acquired by the 49ers from the Patriots in 2017. In both situations, the team could have saved many millions in guaranteed money—tens of millions, in Garappolo’s case—by insisting on a contract extension at the time of the trade. When that did not happen, all leverage shifted to the player, and both Bradford (a Hall of Famer in the business of football) and Garoppolo (the league’s highest paid player in 2018) used their leverage skillfully.

While fantasy football players can make trades like this with friends and talk smack about it, a real life trade of Mack is another story, with major football and financial consequences. Sorry to say for Packer fans and others, but my strong prediction is that Khalil Mack is not going anywhere and will be playing for the Raiders, likely without a new contract, in 2018.

The proud veteran who’s holding on

Earl Thomas—assuming he plays for the Seahawks again—is the last remaining member of the famed Legion of Boom, now that Richard Sherman has been released and Kam Chancellor retired due to injury. Thomas is the lonely crusader from that group and, like all the players above, wants a contract adjustment and/or trade to a team that would give him a contract adjustment.

Thomas, a wonderful player who has given his heart and soul to the Seahawks, represents another illustration of the harsh nature of the business of football. Here is the stark and inconvenient truth: If the Seahawks were going to address his contract, they already would have. Further, if the Seahawks were going to trade him to a team that was going to address his contract, they already would have. Neither of those things are happening.

We have seen it before for players that have been signature players for their team for a decade or more, whether Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, Andre Johnson or Sherman. Even for the best of the best, the faces of franchises, it rarely–if ever—ends well. Earl Thomas is just the latest example.

The business of football, heavily tilted towards management, always wins.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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