Look, I understand the role panic plays in modern sports fandom and coverage. Conflict drives the story, so perpetual looming deadlines and dire consequences … well, they’re good for business.
The easy comparison here is to Le’Veon Bell, who sat out all of last season rather than play a second year as the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ franchise player and then landed $27 million in guaranteed money on a free-agent deal with the New York Jets. But the situations of Elliott and Gordon are dramatically different from the one in which Bell found himself a year ago. Let me explain:
What makes their contract situations different than Bell’s?
Start with Elliott, the only one of the Dallas Cowboys‘ three contract-hungry stars who is sitting out of training camp until he gets a new deal. As our Todd Archer pointed out a few days ago, the main reason it wouldn’t make sense for Elliott to sit out the whole season is that it would have no impact on his contract situation. His contract would “toll,” meaning the $3.853 million he is scheduled to earn this year would become his 2020 salary, and the $9.099 million he is scheduled to earn in 2020 would become his 2021 salary. He would end up right back where he started.
Same deal with Gordon, the Los Angeles Chargers‘ star running back who is sitting out of camp rather than play on his $5.6 million fifth-year option salary. If Gordon doesn’t play at all in 2019, his contract would toll and the option season would just transfer to 2020, when he would then be scheduled to earn $5.6 million once again. It’s worth noting that the reason Elliott’s fifth-year option price is so much higher than Gordon’s, even though they play the same position, is because Elliott was a top-10 pick and Gordon was not.
Bell didn’t have this problem because of the franchise-tag rules, which would have forced the Steelers to pay him nearly $21 million this year if they had wanted to franchise him for the third year in a row. In short, he was able to sit out a full year and still become a free agent. Elliott and Gordon would not be free agents if they sat out the whole season.
So the most basic reason these guys won’t sit out the whole season is because there’s no benefit in doing so. There are other reasons, though, including cash reserves.
What do you mean? Aren’t all NFL players rich?
That’s relative. By the time Bell made the decision to skip the 2018 season, he already had pocketed more than $16 million in NFL salary, including $12.12 million on a franchise tag in 2017. Elliott has made a little more than $22 million — he was a first-round pick; Bell was not — but $16.35 million of that was a signing bonus he received when he signed his rookie deal in 2016. It’s fair to assume Bell’s $12.12 million 2017 salary was of more use to him in 2018 than Elliott’s $16.35 million signing bonus from three years ago would be to him this year if he were to go without paychecks.
Gordon, who was picked 15th overall in 2015, has made a lot less than has Elliott, who was picked fourth overall in 2016. Gordon’s career earnings so far total about $10.7 million, of which about $6 million was a signing bonus he got in 2015. The upshot here: Having pocketed $12.12 million the year before, Bell almost certainly was better positioned financially to sit out last season than either of these guys are positioned to sit out this season.
OK, so why did guys such as Yannick Ngakoue and Chris Jones have to be in camp by Aug. 6 and these two didn’t?
Good question. A player under contract who doesn’t report to training camp by that deadline — 30 days before the start of the season — loses a year of accredited service toward free agency. Ngakoue and Jones each have three years of service time. Players need four to be unrestricted free agents. Had Ngakoue and Jones reported after that date, they would have been restricted free agents at the end of the season. And who, if they can help it, would rather be restricted than unrestricted?
The reason that rule didn’t matter to Gordon is that he already has put in four years of service time, so as long as he shows up by the end of November — more on that below — he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. The reason that rule didn’t matter to Elliott is that he still has two years left on his contract, so he isn’t even free-agent eligible after this year anyway. (Elliott also might be an elite enough player that restricted free agency wouldn’t hurt his earning potential.)
So, how many games can Elliott and Gordon sit out?
You’ll remember that the deadline for Bell to report was Week 10 if he wanted to be eligible to play last year. But that deadline is only for unsigned franchise players, transition players, tendered free agents and drafted rookies. Players under contract face different rules.
First of all, the Oct. 29 trade deadline matters, at least nominally. A player on the Reserve/Did Not Report list who returns after the trade deadline is not automatically reinstated to his team. The team would have to apply to the commissioner’s office for his reinstatement. That’s likely a formality, as it’s tough to see the commissioner again telling team owner Jerry Jones that Elliott isn’t allowed to play, but it’s something to file away.
Matthew Berry explains that there are reasons to be concerned about drafting Ezekiel Elliott early since no one knows when he’ll be back from his holdout.
But assuming that isn’t a real issue, Article 17.13 of the NFL’s constitution and bylaws states that players on the Reserve/Did Not Report List are “prohibited from being reinstated in the last 30 days of the regular season.” That means, if Elliott or Gordon wants to be allowed to play in 2019, they would have to report to their teams no later than Nov. 29 (31 days before the end of the regular season).
Got it. They can’t sit out the season. But they can skip games, right?
Oh, yeah. Ultimately, both Gordon and Elliott have to show up at some point this season if they want to get paid and if they don’t want to find themselves in identical situations a year from now. The real question is not whether they’ll sit out the season but whether they’re willing to sit out any regular-season games, and that question won’t be answered for another month. In the case of Elliott, since his team doesn’t seem to have viable replacements on its roster, this would appear to be a threat the Cowboys would have to take seriously. In the case of Gordon, it’s possible that the Chargers — who believe they have capable replacements in Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson — would see how far he’s willing to push it.
The point to keep in mind on these deals is that it’s all about motivation. At this time, neither the Cowboys nor Elliott have reason to move off of their respective contract demands. Each side has a point at which it will be desperate enough to move in the other’s direction; the question is which side reaches that point first. If it gets to the point in which the Cowboys believe they need Elliott in their building, maybe they up their offer enough to get him there. If it gets to the point in which Elliott decides he can’t afford to sit out any longer, maybe he drops his demands enough to get a deal done.
And same with Gordon, though the central issues seem to tilt his situation in favor of the team, as it has some depth at running back and he hasn’t made the same kind of money Elliott has made so far. It’s possible, if the Chargers don’t think he is going to budge from his demands, they find a trade partner and move on, though that’s tricky since the acquiring team would have to give the Chargers something of value and also sign Gordon to the deal he wants.
OK, so give us a prediction: What ends up happening here?
I think Elliott ends up with a new contract from the Cowboys that makes him the league’s highest-paid running back and he plays for them in Week 1, because Dallas can’t afford to start the season without him.
I think Gordon gives in and signs with the Chargers for something around $10 million a year, because he really has no leverage.
I doubt either of them misses a regular-season game, though if you asked me which one is more likely to do so, I’d pick Gordon.
And by the way, I think both of these teams are Super Bowl contenders.