There seems to be a bit of a trend this offseason, one I can't say I am surprised by, frankly. Skipping out on minicamp is all the rage, lately. And, well, so what?
I'm on record documenting what I think about OTAs and spring NFL "football" in general as presently constructed, which is a glorified baby-sitting service for young players and an opportunity for the league to maintain a year-round stranglehold on some semblance of the news cycle. It serves the purpose of taking attendance and getting rehab done for guys with two years or less of pro experience and for everybody else it's fairly irrelevant, Well, ditto for minicamp.
Yeah, sure, minicamp is mandatory and OTAs are even less meaningful, as voluntary exercises you can't even fine a player for following his contractual guidelines and staying home or going on vacation instead. But I'll let you in on another dirty little secret as well – not a whole helluva lot happens at minicamp, either, for guys who are established much less for superstars. If you think a few days of practice in the middle of June – where the priority is, above all else, no one get hurt – is going to have any impact on the upcoming season whatsoever, you are woefully misguided.
Okay, these sessions are a little closer to a real football practice, but when it comes to the kind of guy with the wherewithal to pull off opting out of them, well, they don't matter one bit. If you think Earl Thomas or Julio Jones or David Johnson or Taylor Lewan or Tom Brady are really going to get a damn thing out of a couple of afternoons, you don't get it. These are men at the very top of their game who stay in pristine shape 12 months a year and who are dominant competitors and who don't need a quick check-in during the dead of June to prove anything to anyone or maintain their edge.
They are far beyond this exercise and no one should be surprised if players of this caliber – particularly those on their rookie contracts who have far out-performed their compensation level, decide to do something else and incur the wrath of an $84,000 fine. In fact, in many ways it is the natural bi-product of this collective bargaining agreement that stripped entry-level players of any leverage or true negotiating strength given the specter of a fifth-year option and the inability to even ask for a reworked contract until after their third season and, of course, the possibility of multiple years of franchise tags on top of that.
So get used to this. And be thankful that it isn't really taking away from your team. The penalties for holding out of training camp are much steeper and players have very little recourse in that regard anymore, so if there is a greater proliferation of them avoiding mandatory minicamp, I wouldn't be surprised in the least.
Especially given what transpired back in March, and what will continue to transpire with the cap now rising quite a bit each year. The NFL continues to rake in record broadcasting and sponsorship fees, and teams sell for more money than ever before, regardless of what you might read about the business of football being somehow imperiled. Because the reality of free agency is that with more cap money floating around and a good portion of the league fairly adrift and lacking star power and desperate to get a mediocre player to take considerably more money that he is probably worth.
Thus, when teams like the Chiefs want to give Sammy Watkins $45M guaranteed, despite his injury woes and modest productivity, well, I've got news got you, All-Pro's like Julio Jones and Odell Beckham take notice. When the Giants want to give solid-but-not-spectacular left tackle Nate Solder $15M a year, then a true brawler like Lewan is going to notice pretty quickly – someone younger and superior and stronger and more dominant in the run and pass game; someone who is in essence Marcus Mariota's bodyguard and in many ways the key cog in that offense, might just opt to stay home all spring. Even more so when he has yet to earn a dollar that wasn't essentially pre-described by the rookie wage system he was drafted into.
We've already become used to the fact that players on an unsigned franchise tag are going to stay away. But this may become a much more sweeping proposition.
Players know that once they get their new deal, that $85,000 they risked by no-showing for minicamp is going to come out in the wash. It's a very calculated gamble and the odds of them actually losing out on this money when they invariably get their new paydays are very slim. In the meantime they skip a period of time when you could suffer some freak injury and they don't really miss out on much that matters (even in the case of a new coach or system players of this pedigree can figure it out in camp).
But they do get the undivided attention of their front office and coaching staff. They do get the fanbase to start going white knuckle and obsessing over their absence. They do get ample national attention as well and more of a spotlight shined on their particular situation. Lately, they even get a fancy response from the front office in the form of a written statement about their absence.
All of a sudden their negotiation seems a lot more pressing – even though true deadlines loom at the start of camp, and, even more to the point, Week 1 – and coaches and GMs have to start answering questions about it and owners might start asking those same men about it and, again, there really isn't much for the player to lose. Trust me, this makes less than a ripple in the locker room and the other players get it. They understand how the game is played and what it takes, quite often, to get that cash and that also know that what their leaders are missing doesn't amount to much.
So fret not, Falcons fan or Titans fan or Cardinals fan or Patriots fan. Your season might not go as you would hope and you may have issues this season and problems on the horizon, but a minicamp holdout won't have anything to do with it. These teams are well aware of their underpaid labor and know when they really have to rectify the situation and the other 89 dudes running around in shorts this week will be just fine without them.