Every year, players hold out of NFL training camps in protest of their contractual earnings. There are several arguments for and against such a tactic, but this isn’t the space to litigate those perspectives.
Rarely does a contract dispute linger into the regular season. Last season’s year-long absence of Le’Veon Bell could empower more players to follow in his footsteps, although his scenario doesn’t apply to someone under contract.
How should the 2019 holdouts affect fantasy football draft plans?
Currently, five players are sitting out, and three of whom are huge offensive stars. On defense, Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Yannick Ngakoue has IDP worth, so keep an eye on his situation if your league drafts players on his side of the ball. Update (8/4): Ngakoue has decided to end his holdout and report to camp.
In Washington, star left tackle Trent Williams is not happy with his earnings, and his potential loss in the regular season would not make a huge difference in fantasy, simply because this offense has so little to offer. Running backs Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson may take a hit, but having less time to pass actually helps Chris Thompson and Jordan Reed. Otherwise, all of the receivers are dart throws, regardless of Williams’ status.
So we’ll focus today on the Big 3 of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas and Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon.
This one is the most intriguing if you happen to geek out over contracts. Zeke is two years away from the end of his current deal, meaning the Cowboys have pretty much all of the leverage here. Elliott could be franchise tagged in 2021 and ’22.
Dallas has several key free agents looking for big deals prior to the opening of 2020 free agency. Among those names, Amari Cooper, La’el Collins, Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones and Dak Prescott. The quarterback is expected to land a mega deal, and Cooper is looking for elite money, as well. Luckily for Dallas, the other positions typically don’t break the bank.
Elliott, still playing on his rookie deal, is in the prime of his career. He hasn’t been injured, and Dallas wants to continue to build around his talents. He’ll earn $3.85 million in 2019 and $9.1 mill in 2020’s fifth-year option. Running backs, especially workhorses like Elliott, face shorter career earnings windows than other positions, making it mostly understandable why he’d try to get out in front of the deal’s expiration.
There’s precedent and protocol at stake, however. Given the lack of leverage for a guy who is seemingly one off-field hiccup away from a significant suspension, my expectation is we’ll see Zeke wearing the star on his helmet come Week 1, if not sooner. That said, don’t think this stunt will be ignored around the league and in The Jones household.
Update: Thomas inked a five-year, $100 million deal Wednesday, July 31. He’ll become the richest wide receiver in NFL history. Fantasy owners can rest easy knowing No. 13 will be back in the lineup come Week 1.
The No. 47 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Thomas didn’t land a monstrous rookie deal. He is in the final season of the four-year, $5.11 million contract and is way underpaid in relation to his production. Again, the point here isn’t to argue whether a player should honor their deal, but in any objective sense, Thomas is drastically worth more than his $1.15 million salary this season. He wants to be the highest-paid receiver in football, and the Saints reportedly are comfortable with such a contract. However, the two parties are said to be about $4 million apart right now.
The Saints have the money and financial creativity to get a deal done this year, but it will be tight with just $11.77 million in available space. As it currently sits, New Orleans boasts the ninth-most cap space ($39.62M) entering 2020. Drew Brees, however, is an unrestricted free agent, albeit with a somewhat uncertain future if the Saints win the Super Bowl this year. Other notable free agents in 2020: lineman Andrus Peat and safety Vonn Bell. One has to imagine Alvin Kamara will be looking for record-breaking money before he’s a free agent in 2021.
New Orleans is in good shape for an extension to be reached soon, but history doesn’t portend a deal is imminent. This team doesn’t have a lengthy track record of inking extensions after training camp opens (Junior Galette and Drew Brees are the only recent examples) — not that it is a situation teams face on a regular basis. Thomas could be given some kind of reassurance behind the scenes that he will be taken care of in the spring, too, but the threat of a franchise tag is always a concern for his camp. Sure, it would pay him way more than he currently makes, but the long-term security is the issue from his perspective.
There is little reason to believe Thomas will skip games of consequence.
Even though Gordon is scheduled to be paid more money this year than the first four seasons of his career combined, he’s still making $5.61 million, which is 11th in terms of the annual average for running backs in 2019. He is facing the prospect of being tagged after the year, and the 26-year-old likely has one shot at a huge payday.
Gordon, while threatening to hold out or be traded, likely has to report at some point. It would be a thorough shock to see him sit out the entire year, and based on his career earnings, it may be financially unavoidable for Gordon to dress in 2019. Unlike Bell’s season-long holdout, it’s different since Bell never actually signed a tag, meaning he wasn’t subject to fines up to $40k a day. The Bolts will go after Gordon for money for each day he is absent.
The question becomes whether he will be in LA this season. He has a history of being banged up, and the Bolts are facing the renewal of Philip Rivers’ deal in the spring. Center Mike Pouncey also is a free agent, and so is veteran safety Adrian Phillips. Tight end Hunter Henry could angle for a big payday with a rebound season. Linebacker Jatavis Brown will look to be paid, as well.
Los Angeles doesn’t have a great deal of existing money ($10.39M) for 2019’s salary cap, but that’s enough with some creative maneuvering. Only 10 teams have more cash to spend in 2020. Money isn’t even necessarily the biggest factor here. Running backs are viewed as expendable, and teams aren’t comfortable paying a premium for the position. A trade of Gordon could land him in a new city and still playing under the same contract the rest of this season, allowing him to be franchise tagged by a different general manager in 2020. His ability to sway this situation is almost zero.
This one could get ugly before it improves, so brace for not having Gordon early in 2019 fantasy lineups. At some point, he should return to the field, and I suspect it will be wearing a Chargers jersey. Until then, the Bolts should be comfortable with Austin Ekeler.