Agent's Take: The five players still holding out and the dynamics of each situation
Here's what's likely in store for Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Earl Thomas, Roquan Smith and Le'Veon Bell
Six veteran players under contracts skipped June's mandatory minicamp because of dissatisfaction with their contracts, but David Johnson, Julio Jones and Taylor Lewan didn't continue their absences into training camp. Johnson showed up to Cardinals camp without a new deal. A minor adjustment to Jones' contract was made right before Atlanta's camp started. Substantial progress had been made in Lewan's negotiations, so he reported to Titans camp on time. He became the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman a couple of days into camp.
Three veterans -- Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Earl Thomas -- are still holding out. Le'Veon Bell, who the Steelers designated as a franchise player for a second straight year, and Roquan Smith, the eighth-overall pick in this year's NFL draft by the Bears, are also having contract-related absences.
As an agent, I was involved in two lengthy holdouts with wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. My experiences give me a certain appreciation about contract disputes. Smith's 38-day holdout in 2002 resulted with him getting a new contract from the Jaguars at the end of the preseason. McCardell's dispute with the Buccaneers in 2004 lasted 82 days before he was dealt to the Chargers right before the trading deadline. His situation may be a little more instructive since it was the last time a player coached by Jon Gruden engaged in a holdout prior to Mack this year.
McCardell's holdout got so acrimonious that forcing a trade became the priority over a new contract. We had McCardell fly to Tampa about a week before the trading deadline for an impromptu meeting with Gruden. McCardell was instructed to be extremely confrontational, which was out of character for him. We thought that approach might help accomplish our new objective since a former colleague of Gruden's told me he hated confrontation.
We wanted Gruden to get a taste of what life might be like if a disgruntled McCardell came back. I suspect the meeting helped spur McCardell's trade. Gruden couldn't have been looking forward to an unhappy McCardell eventually returning, after Gruden got fed up enough with Keyshawn Johnson the year before to give him a paid leave of absence over the final six games of the 2003 season for being a disruptive influence.
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Here's a look at the penalties for holding out and the typical dynamics before delving into each player's situation.
A team can fine a player under contract a maximum of $40,000 for each day of training camp he misses. A player who signed his contract as an unrestricted free agent can be fined one week's base salary (1/17 of salary) for each preseason game missed in addition to the $40,000 per day. Thomas is subject to only the daily $40,000 fine because his current deal is a contract extension. He wasn't unrestricted when he signed.
The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement mandates a slightly different consequence for first-round picks holding out when playing under their fifth-year option, like Donald and Mack. It's a fine up to $30,000 per day and the weekly salary penalty applies. This is potentially more costly for Mack since his option-year salary is $13.846 million. Donald's is $6.892 million. Mack is facing a loss of slightly over $3.25 million in salary if he missed all of Oakland's preseason contests.
A year of service towards free agency (i.e.; an accrued season) isn't earned when a player doesn't report to his team at least 30 days prior to NFL's first regular-season game. The reporting deadline this year was Aug. 7. The date was only somewhat relevant to Donald because he has three accrued seasons. It doesn't matter if a player would otherwise qualify for an accrued season if he misses this deadline, like Donald did this year and last year thanks to a holdout lasting all preseason. If Donald plays out his rookie contract, he will lack the four accrued seasons necessary to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Instead, he would be a restricted free agent. Getting the year of service isn't a concern for holdouts with four or more years of accrued seasons, such as Mack, since these players already have enough service time to qualify for unrestricted free agency.
A team can also recover a portion of a player's signing bonus. Fifteen percent of the prorated amount of signing bonus can be recouped on the sixth day of a training camp holdout. It's one percent for each additional missed day with a maximum of 25 percent of the prorated amount during training camp. An additional 25 percent can be recovered with the first missed regular-season game. After four missed weeks, a team can recover 1/17 of the prorated amount for each additional week of the player's absence. The maximum a team can recover in a season is the entire prorated amount of the player's signing bonus in that contract year.
Thomas is the only holdout who has to worry about signing bonus recoupment. Seattle's right to recover $285,000 of Thomas' $9.5 million signing bonus (15 percent of the $1.9 million prorated amount) was triggered on July 30. There isn't any bonus proration connected to the fifth-year options of Donald and Mack.
The financial penalties don't apply to unsigned draft picks, and players with restricted free-agent, franchise or transition tenders who aren't under contract that miss training camp. Their attendance isn't required because of the absence of a signed contract. Bell and Smith fall into this category. Unsigned players, like Bell and Smith, aren't withholding services they are contractually obligated to perform.
A holdout is ultimately a test of both sides' resolve. Once a player misses the beginning of training camp, there usually isn't much dialogue between a player's agent and the team early on when there is a contract impasse. Teams typically approach a holdout as if the player is injured, look for replacements at his position either internally or from available free agents and evaluate how the team performs with him absent.
Most holdouts don't mind missing the daily grind of training camp but as the regular season gets closer, a player may start having second thoughts about his decision. If meaningful dialogue on a new contract resumes, it may not be until the middle of the preseason. There were hardly any conversations with the Buccaneers during most of McCardell's holdout because both sides were firmly entrenched in their positions.
Savvy teams will refrain from talking to the media about the player, besides an obligatory statement about being unwilling to publicly comment on a player who isn't in training camp or that the player's contributions are valued and welcome him returning to the team when he is ready to honor his contract. In most cases, fans don't take a player's side in a contract dispute with a team. The public has difficulty relating to a player being unhappy with what is a lucrative contract in their eyes or rejecting a substantial offer. Unusual circumstances are required for public sentiment to be with the player.
A major obstacle a player must overcome is a team's concern about establishing a precedent of giving into a player's demands for a new contract through a holdout. Although teams should be able to easily make distinctions based on each player's particular circumstances, they don't want to send a signal to the other team members that they could get rewarded by holding the team hostage. This is especially the case when there is a new owner, or new general manager or new head coach with a hands-off owner. Along those lines, some teams have a philosophy that meaningful dialogue about a new contract won't occur while the player is a holdout.
Prominent players at impact positions have the best chance of success provided they remain patient and give the impression that they are willing to continue their absence into the regular season. Once a player decides to end an unsuccessful holdout, some teams will reduce the fines accumulated as a gesture of goodwill, especially with a player who is one of the most important players on the team or a veteran that commands a lot of respect among his teammates. The Rams waived Donald's training-camp fines, didn't recover his signing bonus they were entitled to collect and opted against voiding his contract guarantees with last year's holdout.
The longer a holdout drags on, the more of a distraction it can become with coaches and teammates being constantly asked about it by the media before and after games and practices. It also helps to be on playoff contenders/teams with Super Bowl aspirations or teams where the head coach or general manager is on the hot seat. Pressure may be put on ownership to do whatever it takes to get the player back into the fold as the regular season approaches. Smith's holdout was aided by Jacksonville's first-team offense struggling to move the football without him (16 punts in 17 offensive possessions).
Aaron Donald, DL, Rams
Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff has characterized the contract standoff the Rams are having with Donald for a second-straight year as a fundamental disagreement on value. General manager Les Snead painted a rosier picture Wednesday when talking to a group of reporters at the team's hotel in Baltimore, where the Rams play their first preseason game on Thursday. He said the parties are in the same "zip code."
The Rams are reportedly willing to make Donald the NFL's highest-paid defensive player (which is currently Broncos linebacker Von Miller at $19,083,333 per year and $70 million in overall guarantees) and a charter member of the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club. It is my understanding that at least restoring the traditional financial relationship between the highest-paid quarterback and non-quarterback, which existed under the current CBA before salaries for passers dramatically increased over the last year, is important to Donald's camp. A deal averaging more than $23 million per year with $85 million in guarantees where $65 million to $70 million fully guaranteed at signing would recreate the balance.
Snead's comments are encouraging for a long-term resolution before the Rams' regular-season opener against the Raiders on Sept. 10. The Rams' Super Bowl aspirations would be likely diminished without the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year's services.
The Rams won the battle in a contest of wills when Donald ended his lengthy holdout last year without getting a new contract. If history repeats itself because talks breakdown where Donald plays out his rookie contract, he won't have to worry about not qualifying for unrestricted free agency. From a practical standpoint, the Rams would use a franchise tag on Donald in lieu of a giving him a first-round restricted free agent of tender of $7,581,200 at a 10 percent of this year's salary. The first-round pick compensation for Donald as a restricted free agent wouldn't be enough to deter another team from signing a player of his magnitude to an offer sheet with a player-friendly structure and money that could make the Rams uncomfortable. The same risks wouldn't exist with a non-exclusive franchise tag requiring two first-round picks as compensation for an unmatched offer sheet.
Khalil Mack, DE, Raiders
NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported during his recent visit to Oakland's training camp that there haven't been contract discussions since February and the Raiders don't currently have an offer on the table for their best player. General manager Reggie McKenzie refused to negotiate with left tackle Donald Penn last year while he was holding out. Penn signed a new deal shortly after ending his holdout. The lack of any negotiations for such an extended period of time don't suggest that Oakland would be willing to take a similar approach with 2016's NFL Defensive Player of the Year if he reported to camp.
Mack's agent, Joel Segal, has also demonstrated an ability to play hardball. He navigated running back Chris Johnson through a successful holdout in 2011 that lasted until the Titans gave his client a four-year, $53.975 million contract extension in early September.
Mack ending his holdout before Donald would be surprising since a new Donald deal should serve as a baseline once negotiations eventually resume. It's fair to wonder whether the Raiders will be able to afford Mack, provided a Donald deal brings more clarity to the marketplace since a more concerted effort hasn't been made to sign him and Mark Davis is reportedly among the NFL's most cash-poor team owners. If the intel I received on Gruden still holds true, he probably wouldn't relish having to deal with a disgruntled Mack playing on his fifth-year option.
Mack's situation could have some residual effects. Segal also represents 2015 fourth-overall pick Amari Cooper. A bounce-back season by Cooper will put Segal in position to demand top wide receiver money for him. Segal is also 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph's agent.
Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks
Thomas has been true to his word after announcing via Twitter a couple of days before the June minicamp he wouldn't participate in any of Seattle's team activities until his contract situation was resolved. More recently, Thomas issued a "pay me or trade me" ultimatum to the Seahawks, which he followed up with an article in The Players Tribune where he explained why he is holding out.
Seattle's recent history in contract disputes suggests that a holdout isn't the best tactic to get a new contract. Safety Kam Chancellor held out 54 days in 2015 before returning without any changes to his contract.
Thomas is in the final year of a four-year contract extension signed in 2014 averaging $10 million per year, which made him the NFL's highest-paid safety at the time. He is scheduled to make $8.5 million this year on a $10.4 million salary cap number.
Seattle signing left tackle Duane Brown, who was acquired from the Texans at last season's trading deadline and turns 33 at the end of the month, to a three-year, $33.5 million extension a couple of weeks ago probably doesn't sit too well with the 29-year-old safety's representation. There hasn't been any meaningful dialogue about a contract since general manager John Schneider met with Thomas' camp at the NFL combine in early March.
It may be time for to Seattle to aggressively pursue a trade, presumably to Dallas, where Kris Richard, who was Seattle's defensive coordinator the last three seasons, is the Cowboys' secondary coach. Thomas becoming more vocal as his holdout progresses where he is increasingly critical of the Seahawks could be a signal that he would rather have a change of scenery than a new contract in Seattle. The Seahawks would need to lower their asking price to below a first-round pick. According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram's Clarence Hill, the Seahawks wanted first- and third-round picks for Thomas leading up to and during late April's NFL draft. Any team seriously interested in Thomas would likely want permission to discuss a new contract with his representatives, if not reach an agreement in principle, before acquiring him.
The five-time All Pro probably has his sights set on reclaiming his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current standard with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017.
Roquan Smith, LB, Bears
Smith is the only unsigned 2018 draft pick. He has the same representation as Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, CAA Sports' Todd France and Brian Ayrault. Bosa, the third-overall pick in 2016, had the longest contract dispute for an incoming NFL player since the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011. He missed 31 days of training camp before signing his contract.
The Bears and Smith aren't disagreeing about money. His fully-guaranteed four-year contract should be worth $18,477,168, which includes an $11,517,940 signing bonus. The disagreement is over the circumstances when Smith's guarantees will void. Practically every NFL player contract signed since the current CBA took effect in 2011 with salary guarantees contains voiding language for an exhaustive list of defaults by the player.
Smith's side doesn't want the guarantees to void because of a suspension for on-field conduct, which isn't unreasonable. The Bears have already made an exception for the new helmet rules where suspension is a possibility. France/Ayrault client linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who was taken 16th overall by the Bills, has the guarantee language in his contract sought for Smith.
One possible solution would be similar language to what was in Ndamukong Suh's Dolphins contract. Suh, who has a history of on-field transgressions, needed to be suspended for at least 25 percent of the season's games for his guarantees to be voided because of his actions on the playing field. Whether it's 25 percent, 35 percent, 50 percent or some other number, the two sides should be able to find a compromise along these lines.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
The Steelers and Bell were unable to reach an agreement before the mid-July deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals. Bell rejected a five-year deal reportedly in the $14 million to $15 million per year range containing a $10 million signing bonus. Slightly over $33 million of the money was in the first two years. The three-year cash flow was $45 million. By CBA rule, the Steelers are prohibited from signing Bell to a multi-year contract until after the 2018 regular season, which ends on Dec. 30.
Bell intends on taking the same approach with his franchise tag as last year. Bell didn't sign his franchise tender until Labor Day, which is Sept. 3 this year. He will be making $14.544 million this season once he signs his franchise tender to bring his two-year haul to $26.664 million.
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