Aaron Donald changed the market for defensive players on Friday with a record-setting six-year deal worth $135 million. If you believe the initial wave of minutiae, and the practical guarantees are indeed practical, this is the most significant non-quarterback contract in NFL history.
This summer, Donald and the Rams in particular have shown that teams can be reasonable when it comes to non-traditional player value (see: Todd Gurley and the pass-catching running back). But the end of this holdout also gives us insight into something else brewing at the top of every market: Holdouts work if you’re good enough, and every player at the top of their position should do it.
Aaron Rodgers, along with every other top-10 quarterback, should hold out. Tom Brady should hold out every year. Antonio Brown should hold out whenever another receiver gets more money. No one was better at this than Darrelle Revis, who understood his personal value to a team and matched himself with a set of agents dogged enough to make it happen. The visual of a coach like Rex Ryan physically boarding a private plane to fly a thousand miles away just to beg Revis to come back is one of the few glimpses at absolute power a player has had in a league that historically viewed the owner-player relationship as one between ranchers and cattle.
While all eyes are shifting to Khalil Mack as a cautionary tale against this strategy since he’s losing gobs of money now with no end in sight, remember that sometimes there is a slow-burn effect at play. How long before the rest of the Raiders wonder about the man pulling the strings, who already has a guaranteed 10-year, $100 million deal of his own? If talented, hard-working guys don’t get taken care of, the locker room has a way of letting management know about it. Worst case, Mack can eventually force his way to a team that has a heightened value of his skills before turning 30.
As former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner put it Friday, “You don’t need to be free to have leverage. The desire to keep [the] locker room happy, key players happy and the threat to withhold services allows you to create a perception of leverage which is all you need.”
There are myriad forces working against the players who are both talented and stoic enough to do this. Imagine practicing your craft every day to the background noise of people calling you selfish and greedy and other stuff. Imagine the militaristic pull of the locker room—the coaches and players you actually do like. The ones who have helped you achieve all this success in the first place waiting for you to get there so they can have a better season. All of this is used against them on a daily basis in an effort to get them to take less than fair market value for their services.
As we’ve talked about before, it’s hard to understand this at the fan level because of the salaries we’re discussing. But if you were producing more than 99% of your co-workers but got paid half as much, you’d try and find a way to correct it, too.
That’s all Donald was doing, and that’s all Mack wants, too. Both pilot defenses that are markedly worse without them. Both deserve the kind of money befitting of that stature. Both were willing to dig in to get it.