Every year there are a few players who holdout of mandatory offseason workouts. In nearly every case, their motivations are the same. Players want compensation in proportion to what they believe to be their value to the team—plus long-term job security.
Who wouldn’t want to be paid fairly and know where their kids are going to go to school for the next few years? Of course, not just any random player can holdout. Only one of the best few players on a team can hold out without consequence.
Every holdout has a unique set of circumstances, but the goals of each side are always the same. The player wants to maximize his earning potential and security, while the team wants to pay the player as little as possible and create outs in the deal if that player fails to perform.
For the players who are most valuable to their teams, the mere threat of a holdout is sometimes enough to spark contract talks. Top quarterbacks aren’t holding out for new deals because they are simply too valuable for teams to ever let it get to that point.
A holdout is successful when the team and player are able to agree on that player’s value. Yet, holdouts can backfire on a player and agent if they overvalue the player’s importance. In some cases, the team may even make plans for how it would proceed without that player.
For every holdout, one side is going to have more leverage. Who has that leverage depends on a variety of factors. The team holds the trump card—the player is under contract and has to show up at some point if he wants to be paid.
Under the NFL’s new rookie wage scale, players who hold out can be fined $30,000 per day. That means players drafted in 2011 who are now able to negotiate new deals have a large disincentive to holdout; the team has all the leverage until there is a serious threat of losing that player.
However, teams also don’t want good players sulking or thinking about leaving. In many cases, holdouts happen as the player goes into the final year of his current contract. If a deal doesn’t get done, there is a good chance the player is going to test the open market the following year if the team doesn’t slap him with the franchise tag.
The franchise tag shifts leverage to the player’s side. The player now knows the team values that player as one of the five best at their position, and the team has to carry the larger tag number in the current year. Absent a new deal, the player has even more leverage the following year when the player can test the open market.
The more underpaid or important a player, the more pressure the team will be under to make an adjustment or give the player an extension.
Some names that could holdout this offseason include San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, New Orleans Saints tight end/wide receiver Jimmy Graham and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, among others.
It’s entirely possible that no players hold out, even though there is a threat that a few won’t show up. Washington placed the franchise tag on pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, but he decided not to holdout as the sides continue to work on a long-term deal.
“I could still (stay away) like the majority of NFL players do when they (get tagged),” Orakpo said, via Jason Reid of The Washington Post. “But nothing in my DNA wants to do that. I love my teammates. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.”
Same goes for Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. According to Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com, Suh showed up to the team's mandatory minicamp, but he declined to speak with reporters. Both sides want a new deal, but Rothstein also reports that there is little indication a new deal is imminent.
Graham is an interesting case because an arbitrator has to rule whether the franchise tag the Saints gave him will be at tight end or wide receiver. As explained by Jarrett Bell of USA Today, Graham’s agent Jimmy Sexton filed a grievance last month contending he’s a wide receiver because he played two-thirds of his snaps in the slot or split wide last year.
Until an arbitrator rules on the matter, the two sides won’t even start talking contract because neither side knows which one will have the leverage. The tag for wide receivers is about $5 million more than the tag for tight ends.
The Seahawks don’t expect Lynch to show up for mandatory minicamp, according to Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports. At age 28, with two talented youngsters backing him up and with his team a year away from having to pay big money to their star quarterback Russell Wilson, Lynch could be faced his with last chance to cash in.
Lynch is still important to the Seahawks, but the development of Christine Michael at running back or a healthy and productive season from wide receiver Percy Harvin could shift the team’s priorities away from him in the coming year. Lynch has leverage now, but it is quickly evaporating.
In San Francisco, Davis has leverage because he’s the 49ers’ most dangerous target. He’s also on the wrong side of 30, so his opportunity to get more money out of the 49ers is only going to decline. Still, Davis doesn’t plan to holdout of mandatory minicamp.
“You know what? I plan on being there,” Davis told Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s Henry Wofford on 95.7 the Game. “I plan on being there.”
Every situation is unique, but all the players want the same thing. It’s a business and players like Davis are realizing they have to make business decisions. Davis even wants other players to follow his lead.
“So the thing I want to do is get other guys to start making business decisions," he said. "When it comes to yourself, you’re your own entity. So why not take charge and do that?”
For all the commotion about holdouts, they have a tendency to be resolved one way or another. New York Giants slot receiver Victor Cruz had a big contract extension waiting at the end of his holdout last offseason.
The Seahawks could very easily give Lynch a couple more million dollars upfront without hurting their long-term plans. According to the NFL Players Association, the Seahawks have $8.7 million in salary cap space.
Once the arbitrator decides Graham’s case, the two sides will be able to negotiate a long-term deal. The worst-case scenario is that he plays the season on a franchise tag and the two sides work on the parameters for a deal next offseason.
For the situations that aren’t resolved this year, there is always next year. Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe played on the franchise tag in 2012 and was probably on his way out of town, but the Chiefs had a regime change and he was given a five-year deal prior to last season.
For players who received the franchise tag before training camp, holdouts typically end because the two sides can’t negotiate a long-term deal beyond a mid-July deadline. That deadline rule was collectively bargained by the players and owners.
Unlike other holdouts, players given the franchise tag can’t be fined for missing mandatory practices until they sign their tender. If they could, you’d likely see a lot fewer of these types of holdouts.
Guarantees and the Future
So far, the threats of holdouts from the 2011 rookie class have been virtually nonexistent. Part of the reason may be that all rookie deals for first-round picks are fully guaranteed, and most teams have exercised cheap fifth-year options on those players.
That means players still have two years left on their deals. While the amounts are modest compared to what they could get on the open market, they have virtually no leverage.
In light of the focus on safety in the NFL, and with more concussion lawsuits popping up seemingly every day, it would make sense if players started focusing on ways to get more guaranteed dollars from teams. However, holdouts have not yet become the preferred method for securing them.
The NFL has rigged the system for rookies for four to five years. When young players finally do get to renegotiate, that might be their only shot to secure as much guaranteed money as possible. It remains to be seen if the new system will force veterans under contract to use holdouts as a method to secure additional guarantees, but it’s certainly conceivable that they will.