Melvin Gordon has incurred about $1 million in fines and — assuming he doesn’t show up at the Los Angeles Chargers‘ facility Friday or Saturday — has missed three weeks’ worth of $329,705 paychecks. Sources say Gordon intends to wait as long as he can before either the Chargers trade him or he finally has to report to work in order to be eligible for free agency next spring. The latter could be as late as Nov. 30, by which time he’d have missed 12 in-season paychecks totaling nearly $4 million.
That this is fine with Gordon, who is holding out because he (accurately) thought a $5.6 million salary was too low for a running back with his accomplishments and projected role, and because he and the Chargers couldn’t agree on a new long-term contract, indicates a change in the way NFL players perceive themselves and their own power in the marketplace.
Gordon is far from alone here. Just last season, Le’Veon Bell sat out an entire Steelers season because he didn’t want to play a second year on the franchise tag and didn’t want to get injured and hurt his free-agent market value. (Gordon’s situation is different from Bell’s because he’s not a franchise player and has to report before the final 30 days of the regular season or else his contract rolls over into next year and he’s not eligible for free agency.) And there are several more recent examples:
It’s a growing trend of NFL players taking more control of their own contract situations than they traditionally have thought they could. And if you think the league isn’t alarmed about it, you’re wrong.
Sources say the topic of contract holdouts has been raised in the current collective bargaining negotiations, and that some owners have proposed changes that would significantly strengthen the penalties for training camp holdouts, since guys like Gordon and Elliott seem willing to pay them as an investment on the dream of a much bigger deal down the road. One source called the proposed changes “draconian.”
In the current CBA agreement that expires after the 2020 season, a team can fine a player up to $40,000 for each day of training camp missed and an amount equivalent to one week’s regular-season pay for each preseason game missed, and if a player under contract doesn’t report before Aug. 6, he does not accrue a season toward free agency. It’s hard to imagine the players agreeing to major changes to these policies without some significant give-back from the owners on some other financial issue (revenue split, minimum spending floor, structural changes that would pave the way for more fully guaranteed contracts, etc.), but it’s collective bargaining, so you never know where the concessions will ultimately fall.
Regardless, it’s a sign that the league is concerned about the proliferation of players pushing back against their contract situations. The problem is that the candy’s out of the piñata at this point, and it’s hard to see how things swing back in the other direction.
“I’m sure the owners don’t like that,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters in Northern California on Thursday. “I don’t think they ever like to give up any power or for players to flex their power, but I think it’s good for the game.”
Why is this happening now? Well, a few reasons:
Lack of trust. Whether it’s the way team owners have handled player protests, perceived inconsistencies in the administration of league discipline or just the age-old issue of teams cutting players mid-contract, it seems current NFL players have grown more than ever to mistrust the institutional machinery of the NFL — be it their specific teams or the league in general.
The Steelers can try to tell someone like Bell or Brown, “No, we don’t guarantee contracts beyond the first year, but look at our history — we take care of our guys,” and where players of the past might have accepted that, current stars don’t feel they should or have to. Increased awareness of injury and concussion risk has created a landscape on which players feel it’s more important than ever to look out for their own well-being. When the NFL gets taken to court by former players accusing it of ignoring the health risks the game presents, that’s not going to help current players believe the people running the league are looking out for the players’ welfare.
An opportunity to take control of your own life and career — get the contract you want instead of settling, find your way to free agency in a system designed to keep the top players from getting there, get yourself out of a situation where you can no longer work with the coach, the quarterback or the front office — is always tempting. If as an employee you don’t trust the company to look out for your best interests, of course you’re going to seize an opportunity to do it yourself.
Players’ awareness of their value. This isn’t entirely new. But where in the past these situations would have been confined to an Emmitt Smith here, a Darrelle Revis there, they seem to be happening more and more.
Elliott believed, correctly, that the Cowboys wouldn’t want to start the season without him, so he pushed them to the point at which they had to confront that possibility and give him what he wanted. Brown knew he could torch every proverbial bridge in Pittsburgh and Oakland because he’s so good that teams — even the defending Super Bowl champion — would line up for a chance to sign him the moment he became available. Fitzpatrick was worth a first-round pick in trade. Ramsey likely will be, too. If a player and/or his agent knows that, it gives weight to the trade request.
Because once the request is out there, teams get competitive and start making offers his current team can’t refuse. It doesn’t work for everyone (see: Gordon, whose team had adequate replacements for him). But there’s a snowball effect to this, and the more it happens, the more players will start to see it as a realistic avenue. Which leads us neatly to our final point.
NBA envy. Every year, when NBA free agency opens, social media is abuzz with NFL players bemoaning the size of their basketball counterparts’ contracts and the fact that they’re guaranteed. So it stands to reason that NFL stars also would take note of the trend among NBA stars to find/force their way off teams for which they don’t want to play and onto teams for which they do.
“You see guys like Kawhi [Leonard], Paul George do it, and you see in the NBA it happens, so why not in the NFL?” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty told me in a phone interview this week. “I guess time will tell if it’s a trend, but it’s no different than a team, when they’re done with a guy, they just get rid of him. So why not? Who knows where it will go?”
If you ever took physics, you know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So if these NBA-style player-generated trades start to become more common, perhaps creative NFL teams will start devising NBA-style ways of protecting themselves. For instance, there’s nothing in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that would prevent teams from “protecting” a first-round pick they sent in a trade for a player. In the NBA, you often see a trade for a “protected” pick — i.e., we’ll give you our first round-pick as long as it’s not in the top 12, and if it is, you get our first-round pick next year instead, as long as it’s not in the top five, etc.
NFL teams could absolutely do this and should. Don’t you think the Texans WISh the 2018 first-rounder they traded to the Browns when they were moving up in the 2017 draft to take Deshaun Watson had been top-10 or top-five protected? Watson got hurt midseason as a rookie in 2017, the Texans fell apart, and a pick they probably figured would be in the back half of the first round ended up being the fourth pick in the draft. The Browns got cornerback Denzel Ward with it.
The Steelers, if their season goes south without Ben Roethlisberger, could end up WIShing they’d done something like this with the pick they sent Miami for Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins might even have gone for it, since they are stockpiling 2021 picks as well as 2020 ones. Again, there’s no rule against this, it just would take two general managers willing to agree to it. Don’t be surprised if it happens soon, maybe even as a means of getting a Ramsey deal done somewhere.
Here are three other things I found interesting in the NFL this week:
Ramsey could go just about anywhere
In a piece I wrote this week, I listed Kansas City, Baltimore, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco as possible destinations for Ramsey in a trade. And since that piece ran, I’ve been told to watch the Browns, Bills, Chargers and others as possibilities.
Fact of the matter is, all but maybe four or five teams have checked in on Ramsey, and the Jaguars are likely to find what they’re looking for in return. It’s still possible he doesn’t get traded at all, but it seems more likely he does. And if you think you have an idea where, you’re alone in that.
Louis Riddick joins SVP and says the 49ers would be an ideal fit for the Jaguars’ disgruntled star, calling Jalen Ramsey “a Richard Sherman with speed.”
Garrett was fined more than $10,000 for hitting Titans tight end Delanie Walker in the face in Week 1. And after getting flagged for two roughing-the-passer penalties in Monday’s victory over the Jets — including one for the hit that knocked quarterback Trevor Siemian out for the season — Garrett can expect to be fined again this week.
He is a brilliant pass-rusher and a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in his third season, but there are recent examples of defensive players on whom the league has come down hard with escalating discipline for on-field behavior. The most memorable might be former Steeler James Harrison, who was suspended for a game in 2011 after the league fined him more than $100,000 for on-field incidents and he didn’t clean up his act. The league suspended current Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict for repeated violations of player safety rules during his time with the Bengals. While with Detroit, Ndamukong Suh racked up enough fines for on-field conduct that he was summoned to the league office and got a warning from the commissioner that continued issues could lead to a suspension.
The good news with Garrett is that he doesn’t seem as defiant as Harrison always did, and he’s indicated he’s aware of the problem and interested in fixing it. It would be a shame if it rose to a level where the league felt it had to take him off the field.
Contract incentive of the week
Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett has four sacks in his first two games — a pace that could make him a nice chunk of extra cash. Barrett has an incentive clause in his contract that pays him $250,000 if he gets to eight sacks this season and an additional $250,000 if he gets to 10. Barrett is playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, so a 10-sack season would represent a 12.5% bump. And it wouldn’t exactly hurt him on next spring’s free-agent market, either.