Seeing a spate of high-profile players seemingly empowered with new leverage this year brings up a question: do NFL players now have an increasing ability to force trades or upgraded contracts? Yes, with a crucial caveat: if, and only if, they are special.
This recent wave of player discontent towards a team response probably began two years ago with the game’s most important non-quarterback player: Aaron Donald. Donald held out of training camp in both 2017 and ’18, a strategy that, while futile the first year, finally paid dividends last year as Donald secured the largest contract ever for a defensive player.
That contract was then cut and pasted for Khalil Mack, who had just won the exacta of being extricated from his old team (Raiders) to a new team (Bears) along with a massive contract. Donald and Mack, perhaps the two most impactful defensive players in the NFL, used their elite talents to leverage a new and improved contract and, in Mack’s case, venue.
On another front, Antonio Brown’s talent earned him impressive contracts from both the Raiders and Patriots recently. That elite talent also gave him a long leash when it came to misbehavior—and in both cases, it was shortened. Both teams knew of Brown’s reputation when signing him to a $30 million guarantee (Raiders) or $9 million signing bonus (Patriots), with both amounts now to be disputed in arbitration. Talent, however, is a powerful drug that even the most conservative NFL teams cannot quit.
Other players to force recent trades and/or contract extensions due to various levels of civil disobedience include Jadeveon Clowney, Ezekiel Elliott, Jalen Ramsey and Emmanual Sanders. Although all of those situations are different, the common thread is obvious: these players are special, in-demand talents. Can these type of players force teams to do things they otherwise would not do in the name of precedent? Yes. Could very good players force the same reaction? No. Here’s a fresh example.
Gordon’s failed attempt
Melvin Gordon held out of Chargers training camp and the first three regular season games in protest of his contract. And in a “careful what you wish for” moment, Los Angeles responded with an upgraded contract offer, which was predictably rejected. The team then stood firm before Gordon returned to where he started: playing for the Chargers under his existing contract.
The running back market didn’t help Gordon’s cause. Even Le’Veon Bell, who some would argue to be an elite player, had a hard time attracting suitors in a free marketplace; he eventually signed with the Jets, the only team seriously bidding for his services. Bell is now playing for a bad team for the exact amount —$14.5 million—he forfeited last year.
As the Gordon situation shows us, if a player is going to engage in a leverage play, good luck if you are just “very good.”
Holdout vs. Hold-in
Teams do not worry about holdouts. If the player isn’t there, the media focus fades after a day or two, coaches and players are busy, team chemistry is not affected. Much more concerning than a holdout—to me and to front offices today—is a hold-in.
Jalen Ramsey was on the Jaguars active roster and collecting his weekly paycheck while manifesting issues with the front office. He was clearly not buying in to the program and had missed practices and games for family matters and a “back injury” that resolved upon his trade to the Rams. Ramsey was holding in by being on the team but not wanting to be there.
We saw a similar situation last year with Earl Thomas and the Seahawks. The team was appreciative of his stellar career but did not want to extend his contract, leading to Thomas practicing and playing with constant rumbles of discontent. That situation culminated with Thomas giving a one-finger salute to his own team’s sideline upon being carted off with a season-ending injury. And now we may see the same in Washington: after holding out for half the season, Trent Williams will now return to the team with, reportedly, no intention to play. In other words, he is about to hold in after holding out. And if I’m a team executive in Washington, I’m much more concerned about the latter.
The fact Ramsey and Thomas were discontented yet with their teams—holding in—is concerning to all teams. No team wants a player, especially an accomplished and respected one, saying negative things about the front office or coaching staff to other players, potentially infecting other players who may be easily influenced.
Tom Coughlin and the Jaguars had to trade Ramsey; his “hold-in” was damaging the team. Luckily for the Jaguars, Ramsey’s talent allowed them to extract two first-round picks (and a fourth) from the Rams, a great exit from a player that probably would have never provided his true on-field value to the team.
NBA star leverage? Not yet
With such leverage plays now seen in the NFL, some have suggested we are seeing NFL players exerting influence similar to that of NBA stars. Well… no.
This summer NBA stars such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard forced teams to give them maximum contracts, fully guaranteed with player opt-outs, and to sign another A-level superstar to pair with them. This is the kind of leverage NFL players can only dream of.
The primary reason for difference in power for NBA players is their strategic use of free agency. NBA superstars routinely become free agents, evident this summer with players such as Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler all free to sign anywhere. In stark contrast, NFL stars—enticed by early contracts and restricted by a Franchise Tag—never hit the open market unless, of course, their incumbent team doesn’t want them long-term (see Kirk Cousins, Washington).
It is true that NFL stars have recently used their special talent to extract team concessions, and this is an incremental gain in player power to be celebrated. However, with true scarcity of NFL stars entering free agency, they are a long way from NBA star leverage.
A kinder and gentler management
In talking to NFL team executives about this player empowerment issue, even allowing for the fact that it is limited to elite players, there is concern. One general manager told me, “It can be a bit of a hostage situation. We don’t want to create bad precedent or reward bad behavior, but what else can we do?”
The only real solution is for teams to somehow not let the superstar player sour on his team or contract. Elite players, as all of us, can be tempestuous and irrational, especially when adversity hits. And comments made by management or coaches that seem innocuous to them may not be seen that way by the player. And those comments can fester, as we have seen with Ramsey and others.
Perhaps players are different than they were before, perhaps superstars are wired a bit differently than the rest of us. Whatever the reason, NFL coaches and management have to learn to tread differently with players that warrant such treatment; precedent be damned. Players are the product, and elite players drive the product. Greater talent equals greater tolerance and greater care. It applies in business, and certainly applies in the business of sports.
Tuesday’s trade deadline: lots of smoke, little fire.
One of the trades that did happen was Aqib Talib moving from the Rams to the Dolphins, and it was a pure Moneyball trade. Miami took a burden off the L.A. ledger—Talib's remaining $4.3 million on his contract—AND a fifth-round pick for their willingness to do so. The Dolphins have the NFL’s lowest payroll ($138 million) and could not only afford Talib’s contract, but may have even needed it to meet minimum spending requirements as per the CBA.
Thus, the only NFL trade at the deadline was not an NFL trade at all; it was a pure NBA or MLB trade! For business of sports nerds like myself, it was exciting to see.
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