Running back holdouts like Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon's could become the norm for top-tier backs
I'll go out on a limb and say we'll be chronicling a few more of these situations come next summer
We should probably get used to the concept of running backs skipping out on training camp. And I don't blame them one bit. I'd do the exact same thing in their position.
The realities of the NFL are not changing anytime soon. America, at least in the eyes of the NFL, prefers the passing game, and the rules will continue to be changed to most benefit and protect quarterbacks and those involved in the passing game. The concepts of spread formations and relying heavily on the shotgun and loading up on move tight ends and receivers are only becoming more prevalent in the pro game. Pinball football is all the rage.
That ain't changing anytime soon. Probably not ever.
And while the most dynamic and explosive three to five running backs on the planet at any given moment will still have a fair share of leverage – as exhibited by Ezekiel Elliott, who with the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday, this spring and summer – it's going to be tough sledding for the rest of the bunch. Including highly-productive runners who have proven themselves to be great teammates and selfless contributors but aren't quite to that level ... like Elliott's RB Melvin Gordon.
Ezekiel Elliott finally signed his deal! And he got … $90 million??? Did the Cowboys make a mistake? Are these numbers real?? What should we expect from him in Week 1?? To answer all those questions plus much more, Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Jared Dubin fired up an emergency Pick Six Podcast to break it all down. Listen in the player below and subscribe to our daily podcast!
The very best of the best, like Zeke and Todd Gurley, can still get a after three seasons – the earliest any draft pick is allowed to negotiate a new deal under this collective bargaining agreement – but it's going to be a struggle for the rest. So they best be prepared to strap in and be willing to sit out at least all of the OTAs and training camp, though the penalties for sitting out into the season become increasingly prohibitive.
Let's be real – Elliott didn't miss a damn thing by not being in Oxnard, California, and then Dallas, for camp and the preseason. No way in hell he was seeing any real contact and no reason at all to put him at risk in a fake football game, no matter if he is still on his bargain-rate rookie deal, or with $50M guaranteed. Given their ridiculously brief prime, their limited earning potential and the high risk of potential injury, sitting out until September and banking on the team waiving fines for skipping out make sense.
It's becoming a little more the norm, and it's worked well in a few different eras, as it did for Chris Johnson about a decade ago before the passing boom was in full swing, and as it did for Emmitt Smith back in what feels like an eternity ago in how the game is played with the run/pass ratios. And Le'Veon Bell showed us last year what the process looks like at its most extreme – skipping the entire season rather than play a second successive year on the franchise tag – while Elliott and Gordon drew breathless coverage of their holdouts the entire offseason.
It brings renewed attention to the plight of the RB, it mitigates the extreme injury potential and serves a purpose. The problem, particularly for someone like Gordon, is that he runs the risk of his contract tolling and him being stuck back with the Chargers in 2020, still without a taste of free agency, and with the team able to wield future franchise tags as a hammer beyond that.
At a certain point – particularly around Week 10 when the ability to play at all this season is lost – the consequences become extremely draconian. But any agent representing that second tier of running back has to at least be prepared to take the matter into September. No, this won't apply to Saquon Barkley – who was drafted above and beyond numerous QB options and who plays for a team that is clearly running the offense through him, and who the Giants had best be prepared to anti-up with again in the summer of 2021.
He would fall into the Gurley/Elliott camp.
As for everyone else ... well ... start checking your intestinal fortitude well ahead of time, because your struggle might be quite real. Kareem Hunt's mega-deal is on hold, big-time, for a long time after his suspension for striking a female. Joe Mixon is primed to join that group of top five running backs, and I expect him to have a massive year in his third pro campaign – but will the Bengals be ready to splurge by this time next year?
At the very least I'd be ready to sit out spring activities if not, especially with A.J. Green's health a constant issue now and with Andy Dalton's future as the QB in some doubt. What about Christian McCaffrey in Carolina a year from now, should he have the sort of monster year many anticipate, and with him becoming increasingly a face of that franchise? Would seem like a slam dunk, but with that running back franchise tag being more palatable than some other positions and teams able to wield it multiple times, it's a trend that will remain closely monitored.
And Alvin Kamara down in New Orleans a year from now if he keeps doing what he's doing? The Saints just stepped up in a market-setting way for receiver Michael Thomas after three seasons, and with Drew Brees near the end, one would imagine Kamara falls quickly into the Elliott/Gurley category next year. But I guess you never know. Regardless, would any of us be shocked if one or two of these guys was willing to push the issue all the way through training camp a year from now in order to get the best deal possible?
I wouldn't. At this stage in how teams are budgeting their dollars, and with the proliferation of another wave of impact backs in one draft after the next, you simply have to be prepared to go that route if need be. It's naïve not to at least brace for the possibility and running backs should be willing to fight for the payday if need be.
I'll go out on a limb and say we'll be chronicling a few more of these situations come next summer. And you shouldn't get up in arms about it, or freak out over every report though June and July. Because nothing matters until September – especially when it comes to the guys who tote the ball for a living – and you don't want them doing much of anything around opposing football players until Week 1, anyway.
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