Maurice Jones-Drew wants a new contract. The running back synonymous with they guy that wins your fantasy football league every season sat at home this week as the Jacksonville Jaguars started their mandatory minicamp. Whether or not he gets a new contract, or an extension as it were, remains to be seen as he and the Jaguars engage in what figures to be one of several games of fiscal brinkmanship ahead of the 2012 season.
For those of you keeping score at home, MJD signed a contract extension in 2009. It was supposed to be the final year of his rookie contract, but the Jaguars handed him the keys to the castle with a new deal worth $30.95 million over five years, with $17.5 million guaranteed.
It was a big leap of faith for the Jaguars. Jones-Drew was still splitting the work with Fred Taylor until that season. The team said goodbye to Taylor prior to the season, and paid Jones-Drew based on what they figured he might be worth.
It was a worthy raise of Jones-Drew and a bargain for Jacksonville, who surely would have had to pay much more to a running back who produced at least 1,600 total yards each year since signing the deal. Last year, he rushed for more than 1,600 yards, adding another 374 receiving yards to his total.
Last season, Jones-Drew was the second-best running back, according to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which ranked him 231 yards better than the average league running back. Only LeSean McCoy accounted for a higher DYAR measurement. In 2010, Jones-Drew was the fourth-best running back according to DYAR, with 238.
Jones is now 27 years old, approaching the downhill side of the typical running back's career in the NFL. He is essentially seeking a payment for being somewhat undervalued during the first three years of his current deal. He will make $4.45 million this season and $4.95 million next year, far less than what running backs like Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson are making. Even the hated franchise tag pays running backs $7.7 million this year.
As usual, there is no clear right and wrong in this standoff.
Related: MJD A No-Show At Jags Minicamp
Unlike Chris Johnson's situation, Jones-Drew is working on a renegotiated contract, not his rookie deal. He could have easily negotiated for a different contract in 2009, one that paid him more based on performance milestones. At the very least, he could have struck a deal similar to the one Steven Jackson signed in St. Louis ahead of the 2008 season, one that would have made him a free agent this year had he reached certain performance milestones for rushing and receiving.
But Jones-Drew settled for the contract he has now. On the surface, his deal probably looked very good in 2009, a nice bump for a player who had yet to shoulder the load on his own. Nevertheless, it took away his best shot at unrestricted free agency, keeping him tied down in Floridian bliss through the prime years of his career, years when he could have been chasing a very lucrative deal on the open market.
Jones-Drew clearly did not negotiate the best deal he could have at the time. It makes the Jaguars' position much more tenable.
His 2009 deal may have suffered due to a lack of foresight, but Jones-Drew picked an opportune time to play the holdout game for another deal. Jacksonville is pinning its hopes on quarterback Blaine Gabbert. A rough debut last season left many questioning whether or not the first-round pick had what it takes to be a starter in the NFL.
General manager Gene Smith added receivers during the offseason, but with the team's immediate future linked heavily to Gabbert, the Jaguars need MJD on the field this season to help keep defenses from keying in on Gabbert and the receivers.
The Jaguars have little relief behind Jones-Drew. Unlike the Matt Forte situation, where the Bears have a capable 1a option in Michael Bush, Jacksonville has only Rashad Jennings. He spent last season on injured reserve with a knee injury. Jennings can probably be a serviceable runner, but he is not the dynamic player that MJD is.
Unfortunately for Jacksonville, this could be a protracted standoff. ESPN's Adam Schefter cautioned fans to that possibility on Tuesday's broadcast of NFL Live.
So what should happen? Is there a middle ground where both sides can meet?
It is worth pointing out that the Jaguars were not successful over the last three seasons, with Jones-Drew at his peak. Their best year was an 8-8 record in 2010, and last season they won just five games. Those results highlight just how important MJD is as well as the limitations of a single running back in league that prefers to air out its offense.
This is no ordinary renegotiation of a rookie contract or a squabble over the franchise tag. General managers of the 31 other teams will be watching this saga closely, hoping that it does not set off a precedent for players demanding renegotiation of a renegotiated contract, a new commitment on top of a commitment already made to the player.
Players, agents and teams rarely use such opportunities to get creative with contracts, but they have an opportunity to do just that in this scenario. Jacksonville could -- and this is pure armchair GM'ing -- guarantee the $9 million plus MJD has left on his contract. To sweeten the pot, they could throw on a boatload of performance incentives. That could come in the form of cash for certain milestones and team accomplishments or it could come in the form of setting turning him loose in free agency after another year.
That probably will not happen. In fact, I can almost guarantee that it will not happen. Both sides have dug in their heels, and the whole thing threatens to put a black mark on what should be the start of a turnaround in Jacksonville.
It has the potential to spiral into something really ugly too. If Jones-Drew is as committed as it sounds, his holdout could go into the regular season. Jacksonville does not appear any more inclined to redouble its commitment to the running back, and if both sides maintain a scorched earth policy, it might mean the end of Jones-Drew in Jacksonville way sooner than either side wanted to see.