Ranking the NFL's 5 Most Likely Players to Hold Out of the 2021 Season
In another sign of a return to normalcy for the NFL, holdouts could again be a part of the summer storylines.
Granted, holdouts don't have as much teeth as in past years thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement. That still didn't stop mini-holdouts from the likes of Dalvin Cook and others last year, though—and they remain a way for a player to voice frustration or flex leverage. Keep in mind, no team wants a Kirk Cousins situation on its hands.
The likeliest holdout candidates this summer are superstar players merely seeking top-tier deals near the end of current contracts. Individual situations such as injury histories or past relationship bumps help formulate the rankings.
These are the likeliest holdout candidates this summer.
5. T.J. Watt, Edge, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like Joey Bosa before him, a holdout would make some sense for Pittsburgh Steelers edge star T.J. Watt.
Watt, a first-round pick in 2017, has drummed up 49.5 sacks over four seasons and appears to be reaching his immense peak, hence 15 over as many games last year.
For now, Watt looks poised to play 2021 on the fifth-year option worth $10 million, which is both the most he's made in a season to date and also a dramatic underpay for what he brings to the table.
Given Watt saw former teammate Bud Dupree have to play the franchise-tag game with the Steelers, and knowing he's even better, he's got plenty of reason to say no thanks on the current remainder of his contract. The Steelers should be plenty motivated to work something out too for obvious reasons, with the idea his price could go up even more if he has a monster 2021 chief among them.
If Watt doesn't get the sense the Steelers want to make it happen, a holdout as a bit of a warning could unfold.
4. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
Before the 2020 season, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen was a big wait-and-see candidate on any extension talk.
Allen erupted in his third season, though, which featured a strong marriage of a natural developmental curve with brilliant roster-building such as the addition of Stefon Diggs. He completed 69.2 percent of his passes with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, ran for eight more scores and led the Bills to the AFC title game.
Meaning, Allen has plenty of reason to step back and throw some leverage around over the summer. He'll play on a paltry $6.9 million cap hit in 2021 before a fifth-year option that checks in at $23 million. He's blatantly worth the extension, but there's something else working in the background—he and his reps might want to cash in now on the chance 2020 was his peak or, even worse, an anomaly.
That's doubtful given what Allen showed on film, but it's worth considering. Buffalo might want to drag its feet on this to keep building up a roster around a rookie quarterback contract. But again, nobody wants a toxic Kirk Cousins situation, so a holdout might be the nudge everyone needs to get something done.
3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Early noise already hints at a possible impasse between the Baltimore Ravens and star quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Like Allen, that number escalates to $23 million on a fifth-year option. But Jackson has plenty of reason to balk at next year's contract numbers after he's completed 64.0 percent of his passes with 68 touchdowns and 18 interceptions over three seasons. Tack on 2,906 rushing yards and 19 scores on a 6.0 per-carry average and a 30-7 record, too.
A year younger than Deshaun Watson when Houston signed him to his mega-extension, Baltimore has plenty of reason to just up and get it done, that being a big one. Jackson hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, so his number could only escalate from here.
But given that 2021 salary, Jackson seems likely to nudge the Ravens in that direction, speeding things up.
2. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
A star running back always seems to pop up in summer holdout discussions, and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants should be next.
Barkley, the second pick in 2018, was one of the league's most electric players at the devalued position until a torn ACL limited him to two games in 2020. Over the course of 31 games, he's averaged 4.7 yards per carry with 17 scores and, in true workhorse fashion, also caught 149 passes with six more scores.
As the second overall pick, Barkley stands to have a sound $10 million cap hit in 2021 before a fifth-year option that would put him in the $7.2 million range. But the post-third year window is something of the norm for premier running backs and extensions given the brutal nature of the position—and Barkley's injury could motivate this even more.
It will be interesting to see if Barkley settles for a longer-term deal for security purposes or if he aims for a market-resetting number. He's talented enough to do so, and he could argue he's a critical part of the equation for a team still trying to rebuild around Daniel Jones with head coach Joe Judge at the controls.
1. Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
The divide between the Chicago Bears and Allen Robinson only figured to get worse once the team inevitably applied the franchise tag.
Robinson has been publicly unhappy with the Bears for a long time now, largely in part because of the inability of the two sides to get a long-term deal done. Before signing his franchise tag, it sounded like he wouldn't do so, and he had previously said the following about negotiations, according to NFL writer Tyler Dunne:
"Unfortunately we've come to what seems to be a fork in the road. But not even a fork. We haven't even been given a viable option to be able to do those things that we want to do without sacrificing a ridiculous amount pretty much for the rest of my career."
There's plenty of justification for the frustration. Robinson, going into his age-28 season, is one of the game's premier receivers. Despite putting up with quarterbacks like Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles, he's had a consecutive 1,000-plus yard seasons with 13 total touchdowns over the last two years.
Robinson will have to report now that he's signed the tag. But with Andy Dalton not exactly an upgrade to the quarterback room for 2021 and no long-term deal in sight still, he could leverage a holdout into a trade request or better terms on a long-term pact. But like Robinson getting the tag, some sort of summer drama feels inevitable.
Salary information via Spotrac.