What an Ezekiel Elliott extension means for Melvin Gordon and the Chargers
Jason B. Hirschhorn
With mere days remaining before the kickoff of the 2019 NFL regular season, the Dallas Cowboys appear near the finish line of a prolonged contract negotiation with Ezekiel Elliott. One of multiple star running backs pushing for new deals this offseason, Elliott has stayed away from the team during training camp and the preseason, applying pressure on Dallas' management to improve their offers.
Now, it looks like Elliott will become the highest-paid player at his position. Pro Football Talk reports that the running back and the Cowboys have closed in on a six-year extension worth $90 million. Such a deal would reset the market for running backs and thus directly impact other negotiations. That includes Melvin Gordon, a fellow contract holdout who wants a multiyear extension from the Los Angeles Chargers or another team.
The stalemate between Gordon and the Chargers has become the football topic du jour in Los Angeles this offseason. Gordon has one season remaining on his rookie contract, a fifth-year option worth about $5.6 million. That cap figure ranks just inside the top 10 at the position in 2019, ranking behind that of Jerick McKinnon ($5.75 million) and Lamar Miller (about $7.2 million) among others. Gordon, who has the fifth most touchdowns since entering the league in 2015, believes he has outplayed his deal and doesn't care to risk another season before cashing in on his talents.
The Chargers seem to view the situation differently. The value of running backs has become a hotly debated issue in recent years given their shorter shelf life and smaller impact on games relative to other positions. Though Gordon has a nose for the end zone, he also hasn't run particularly efficiently. He averages just 4 yards per carry and 4.8 per touch. Compared to his backup Austin Ekeler, who has posted 5.3 and 6.8 in the respective categories over his career, Gordon's contract demands seem overzealous. Los Angeles made several offers and even allowed Gordon to locate a trade partner before suspending extension talks this past weekend.
Regardless, external factors such as Elliott's oncoming extension can shift the narrative, and Gordon's stance could change significantly once it becomes official. Agents and front offices use existing contracts at the same position as guideposts, and Elliott's will raise the target for other top running backs.
Whenever Elliott's extension finalizes, it will almost certainly include years and money the running back doesn't expect to realize. The vast majority of NFL contracts don't guarantee the full amount of compensation like standard deals in the NBA and Major League Baseball. For Elliott, who plays a high-burnout position, securing true guarantees from the Cowboys has proven difficult. As such, the full number of seasons and total money of Elliott's deal won't show the effective parameters of the deal.
Even so, Elliott's extension will provide a data point for Gordon and his camp to leverage with the Chargers. If reports of the Cowboys' most recent offer prove accurate, Elliott will eclipse Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley's four-year, $57 million deal in terms of highest average annual value at the position. Even if the contract structure only ensures Elliott two or three seasons, those numbers will raise the floor for Gordon.
And that price point already exceeds the Chargers' best offer to date. Before the team tabled negotiations, Gordon turned down proposals averaging approximately $10 million per year. Back at the start of training camp, Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson reported that Gordon seeks a deal worth around $13 million annually. That roughly $3 million pay gap could realistically increase once Elliott signs his new contract.
All of which makes Gordon appear increasingly likely to extend his holdout deep into the regular season. He can still register an accrued season if he reports by Week 10, allowing him to reach the end of his rookie contract. The Chargers could keep him off the open market via the franchise tag, but doing so would cost nearly as much as the average value Gordon demanded when his holdout began.
Perhaps both sides would benefit from a mutual parting. The Chargers expressed their confidence in the backfield tandem of Ekeler and Justin Jackson earlier this week and could benefit from additional draft capital or a starting-caliber player at another position. Gordon, who can exert some control over his destination by refusing to report, could earn the lucrative multiyear extension he desires. A trade would also eliminate the near-daily questions about Gordon's availability, an added bonus for all parties involved.
Whether either side will seriously pursue such a resolution remains unclear. But with Elliott's extension applying pressure to the situation, no option appears off the table for the Chargers and Gordon.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH