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Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon Will Likely Get Their Contract Upgrade—With a Caveat

Elliott and Gordon will likely get new contracts, but the teams still hold the leverage here—which is illustrated by Michael Thomas’s contract extension with the Saints.

Before getting to this week’s column, it is a sad time in the SI family, as well as the NFL family, with the sudden passing of our colleague and friend Don Banks. Don is a big part of the reason why I am here; when Peter King started the MMQB in 2013, the first person to reach out to me was not Peter but Don, his wingman who I had known and respected for some time. With Don vouching for the credibility of the venture, the quality of the staff and the importance of the project to Peter, I felt comfortable and privileged to join this website.

Don had that easy touch in everything he did. If there is one word to use to describe Don, and it is what everyone should aspire to be, it is trustworthy. In talking to Don, whether as an agent, a team executive with the Packers, or a friend and co-worker, I knew the information was treated with respect and care. Don made it easy and enjoyable to deal with the media, and he was always interested in your life, your family and your interests. Speaking of family, he beamed in talking about his two boys and was a doting and caring father at all times. Don lived near me in the Philadelphia area for a while, and we went out with him and his wife Alissa a couple of times. There was no “shop talk,” just fun times with good people.

Don will be missed as an NFL journalist—his column in this space was rightly called The Conscience—and even more so as a person and trusted friend.  The news of his passing stopped so many, including myself, in their tracks. I still can’t believe it.

There are now four NFL players under contract withholding their services as a protest of the amounts written in those contracts. That number was reduced from five last week when the Saints extended Michael Thomas’s contract for an additional five seasons (more below).

While one of these players—Washington’s Trent Williams—apparently has much bigger issues with the team beyond his contract, the others are young players, who have been underpaid for some time, now saying they’re not going to take it anymore. As I often say, good luck with that.

When a player engages in this sort of civil disobedience, the team can respond in a couple of different ways. It can simply ignore it and wait for the player to return to the team. This appears to be the Jaguars’ stance in the face of Yannick Ngakoue’s holdout. Conversely, the team can engage the player and agent in different ways, whether a bump in the current year or some kind of larger contract upgrade. This is what now appears to be the case with the Chargers and Melvin Gordon and the Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott. While this sounds like a positive development for the players, it is also a “careful what you wish for” moment for these players.

System working against young players

Despite their immense talent and importance to their teams, Gordon and Elliott have a few things working against them: 1. Savvy negotiators on the club side, sensing an opportunity for a team-friendly contract; 2. A compensation system biased against younger players; and 3. Playing the position with the shortest shelf life position in football.

The Chargers and Cowboys have not willingly come to the negotiating table, but now that they are there, they see these situations as opportunities to leverage contracts in their favor. And while Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott may come away with new contracts, they will not be nearly the ones they want nor the ones they could negotiate if they waited to be closer to their free agency leverage point.

The NFL rookie compensation system is especially restrictive for running backs, whose prime years are often in college (unpaid) and their first few years in the NFL (underpaid). The CBA mandates that drafted players sign four-year contracts (with a fifth-year team option for first-rounder) that cannot be renegotiated until three seasons have passed. Thus, by the time young players are able to negotiate a new contract—which Ngakoue, Gordon and Elliott are trying to do—they not only have been underpaid for a while but also are facing further underpayment at the time they try to renegotiate against a team looking to secure them for the functional remainder of their careers.

In any NFL player contract negotiation, a key number is the starting point: the amount the player is scheduled to earn were he not to negotiate new contract. Starting points for young players—usually the last year of their rookie contracts—are often relatively small amounts. These starting points, combined with the fact the player has made little in the way of career earnings to this point, give teams leverage in negotiations. The Michael Thomas contract, one hailed as a groundbreaking contract for the player, illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.

Saints turn leverage around

After earning a grand total of $4.1 million in the first three years of his career, Thomas was scheduled to earn $1.1 million this year, a fraction of his value. The Saints sensed opportunity and capitalized, enticing Thomas with a $20 million signing bonus—for a player scheduled to make barely $1 million—to commit to five additional years with the team past 2019, now under contract to the Saints through the ’24 season.

Thomas has true guarantees (more than for injury) for two of the six contract years (along with $3 million guaranteed in his third year). He will make $45.4 million over the first three years of the deal.  To put that into perspective, two receivers coming off of injuries in the 2018 free agent class, Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson, will $48 million in the first three years of their contracts.  And they will be free agents again in 2021, when Thomas will have four more contract years.

The Saints worked Thomas’ holdout to their advantage.

Hard to wait

The fact that Thomas did not want to wait to get closer to the free market, which he could have entered in March absent a franchise tag (very unlikely) begs the question of why players find it hard to wait for new contracts.

As I wrote in this space recently, NBA stars always make it to free agency while NFL stars never do. And now we are discussing NFL players not only not waiting until their leverage points of free agency, but demanding earlier deals!

Sometimes the same pundits who defend players taking early contracts are the ones who bemoan the lack of guarantees in NFL player contracts, especially compared to other sports. Well, were more players able to wait to the cusp of or actual free agency, we would see better contracts and better guarantees. But NFL players can’t expect to break ground in contract structure and amounts without using the leverage of free agency (see Cousins, Kirk).

I understand the fear players and agents have of injury in a violent sport. But, as noted above, two wide receivers with injury histories—Watkins and Robinson—cashed in despite that injury history, and both a chance to take a bite of the free agency apple again at a young age. Fear of injury is lever that teams use to scare players and agents in negotiations. (I know, I used in my Packer negotiations for 10 years.)

Players’ second contracts are, almost without exception, the most vital and substantial career earnings that a player will have in their careers. It is the time where they capitalize on productivity early in their careers to reap the financial reward of their success. And by the time most players reach their third contract negotiation, they are often hearing subtle rumblings from the team (and media) about potential decline and staring at the wrong side of age 30.  Thus, it is this contract, the second one, for young players, that means so much.

Careful what you wish for

To be fair, kudos to Thomas and, potentially, Gordon and Elliott, for engineering a response from their teams with their boycott. The teams could have simply fined them $40,000 a day ($30,000 a day for Gordon in his option year) and waited for them to return which, of course, they would (please, no one is going to go the path of Le’Veon Bell here). Indeed, the teams have recognized that these players are special assets they would like to secure long-term. 

However, as the case with Thomas and the likely case with Gordon and Elliott, it is the teams, not the players, who will come out ahead here. They can leverage the players’ unhappiness with their existing contract to fuel a long-term contract that ties the players to the teams for the prime of their careers at a rate that will only look better as time goes on.

The business of football always wins.

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