It appeared as if a number of high-profile holdouts were going to dominate headlines during training camp this year. Several All-Pro caliber players have made it clear that they’re unhappy with their current deals, and usually that’s when the no-shows at practice start. Instead, most of them have decided to honor their existing contracts, and now it’s up to their teams to reward them appropriately.
The one notable veteran holdout this summer involves Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry — the other is a rookie, San Diego Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa. Berry, who was given the franchise tag earlier this year, couldn’t agree to a new contract with the team before the July 15 deadline. Negotiations reportedly stalled when the Chiefs asked the recent cancer survivor to pay for a disability policy that made the club its beneficiary.
Berry, 27, is slated to make $10.8 million in 2016. But the franchise tag fails to provide long-term security to players. Given the short shelf life of NFL careers — the Wall Street Journal calculated recently the average NFL career is now just 2.66 years — players have an exceedingly small window to cash in. After beating Hodgkins’ lymphoma and earning his first career Pro Bowl selection last season, Berry probably views this as his opportunity to maximize his value.
Houston Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins did stage a brief holdout, but ended it after just one day at the start of training camp. Hopkins caught 111 passes last season, but is in the second-to-last year of his rookie contract. He’s due to make just $1 million in base salary in 2016.
Hopkins says he wasn’t trying to send a message by holding out, but it came through loud and clear: having a talent like him still playing on his rookie deal is the football equivalent of highway robbery.
The team and Hopkins, 24, don’t seem close to a new deal as of right now. Over the weekend, Texans GM Rick Smith said on Inside Training Camp Live that "there is not a negotiation happening at this point." But there’s still time for the two sides to reach an agreement before the season begins, like the Texans did with J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing in previous years.
Hopkins is far from the only young player in professional sports whose production is worth far more than his contract. It happens often in MLB, where teams reserve the right to set wages for players before they’re eligible to reach salary arbitration. This can cause discord on occasion, such as when Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole lambasted the organization over the offseason for only giving him a $7,000 raise.
But Cole eventually signed his lowball contract, because he knows he’ll cash in down the line — barring unforeseen circumstances such as a career-altering injury. In the NFL, however, the odds of a player suffering an injury that derails his career is exceptionally high. Hopkins may only be in his fourth professional season, but he’s already surpassed the amount of time the average player remains in the league.
It’s a stark reality, which is why nobody should fault players for trying to get paid while they can. Since most NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, teams can cut players the moment their production starts to fade. Players should approach their negotiations with the same cutthroat attitude, but not all do.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is one of those guys. Though he reported to camp, he said last week he thinks he deserves a better contract than the six-year, $43 million deal he signed in 2012.
"You have to take care of your guys," Brown said, via ESPN. "If a guy underperforms, you get rid of him. If a guy overperforms, you take care of him."
The 28-year-old Brown is currently set to make $6.25 million in base salary this season after leading the league in receptions in 2015 and recording an NFL-record 265 catches over the last two years. Since all of the other top receivers in football earn at least $14 million, Brown is woefully underpaid. The same is true for Hopkins, the league’s third leading receiver last year despite an inept quarterback rotation of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates.
The Texans and Steelers hold all of the leverage with Hopkins and Brown, but that’s even more of a reason why they should rework their contracts before the season starts. If both teams take their star wideouts to the wall, they risk alienating them and setting the stage for contentious negotiations down the line. Rewarding top players who show up to camp — essentially surrendering their leverage in the process — is smart business.
The New England Patriots learned this the hard way several years ago, when they refused to rip up offensive guard Logan Mankins’ rookie contract. Mankins called Patriots owner Robert Kraft a liar in 2010, reportedly two years after he originally asked for a new deal. New England wound up paying through the nose, awarding Mankins a mammoth six-year, $51 million contract in 2011.
If the Patriots had approached Mankins earlier, perhaps the two sides could’ve agreed to a more balanced deal. But when it came time to negotiate, Mankins didn’t have an incentive to give the Patriots any sort of discount.
The team is apparently applying those lessons to Rob Gronkowski’s current situation. When Gronkowski, 26, signed a six-year, $54 million extension in 2012, it appeared to be a fair deal. He was only two years into his NFL career and had an extensive injury history in college and the pros. In the past two years, however, Gronkowski has missed just two games and solidified himself as the top tight end in the NFL, reeling in 154 receptions for 2,300 yards and 23 touchdowns.
In March, following the news that Colts tight end Dwayne Allen had signed a four-year deal that will pay him $12 million this season — $3.5 million more than Gronkowski will make — Gronk appeared to express displeasure about his contract on Twitter.
If ya think about it that Option pick up basically equals pay cut the next 4 seasons... I don't work hard for those reasons. Haha— Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) March 8, 2016
Gronkowski is due to make $8.5 million this season, including his option bonus, which means he’ll earn less than fellow tight ends Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Julius Thomas and Zach Ertz. The market has changed, and now the best tight end in the game is underpaid.
With that in mind, the Patriots and Gronkowski are reportedly working on a new deal, even though Gronk isn’t a free agent until 2020. Unlike with Mankins, the Patriots seem to wisely want to get out ahead of this one.
Time for a new approach
The Seahawks have a chance to do the same with Michael Bennett, who showed up to camp despite grumbling about his contract for the second straight offseason. Bennett posted a career year in 2015, recording 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He’s due to make $4 million in base salary this year and $6 million in 2017.
Since Bennett is 30 years old, there’s no reason to sign him to a long-term extension. But ripping up these two years to pay him like an elite defensive end — and add on a couple of additional years to lower his annual cap hit — could work for both sides. Tangibly, Bennett would be paid the market rate and Seattle could gain some needed salary cap flexibility.
But the intangible gain for the Seahawks is perhaps more important: it would show a team that refused to budge with Kam Chancellor last season is willing to give a little bit in negotiations. That could compel players to comprise, as well. Given that Russell Wilson’s cap hit is slated to be more than $20 million over the next two years, that could be a very valuable advantage.
As Emmitt Smith, Darrelle Revis and others have shown in the past, sometimes the only way for players to maximize their value is to hold out. But that takes a lot of guts. Not everybody has the appetite for that kind of turbulent path.
Hopkins, Brown, Gronkowski and Bennett are not choosing that option. Their teams would be wise to reward their good faith.