Analysis  

 

The holdout handbook: Exploring key issues for players, teams

The first thing you need to know about holdouts is that no one truly has held out yet.

As much as all of us make of the chatter, no player is really making a statement by sitting out in April and May and June. Likewise, no club is really drawing a line in the sand by refraining from negotiating while their disgruntled employee works out elsewhere, or by saying how they won't stand for it.

Not for a few more weeks will it really count.

And under the current collective bargaining agreement, things are different than they were in the past. Because of a salary system that is, as a practical matter, slotted for draft picks, rookie holdouts are mostly a relic of the past. Because of tightened rules, we see fewer honest-to-God veteran holdouts, too.

But some players still carry the clout to pull one off effectively. Back in 2011, Chris Johnson parlayed a 35-day strike into a $53.5 million contract with the Tennessee Titans. Conversely, a year later, Maurice Jones-Drew sat out for 38 days -- and eventually reported without a new deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In April and May, the contract situation of Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was a hot-button topic, though he did eventually report for organized team activities. San Francisco 49ers vets Vernon Davis (tight end) and Alex Boone (guard) were less flexible, missing the whole spring -- and subjecting themselves to $70,000 in fines for skipping a mandatory minicamp. Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston took a similar tack. Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson's situation has been murkier, with his sit-out looking more like Carson Palmer's faux retirement of 2011. And there have been rumblings Johnson's teammate J.J. Watt should make a stand for a better deal of his own.

Bottom line: If any of those guys really wants to make a point, the time to do so is coming.

"You go to the team and say, 'My guy is (bleeping) serious -- he wants to walk out. How do we solve this?' " one agent said. "And if they say, 'We're not gonna do that,' then it becomes your last resort."

In an effort to scope out the landscape for the above players -- and the attached teams -- I spent the past week asking around about what's at stake for all involved. And the hope is that my findings reveal a general roadmap for each side.

For the club

The truth is, teams have plenty of levers to pull. There's the aforementioned $70,000 fine for skipping a mandatory minicamp. There's the penalty -- up to $30,000 -- they can assess the player for every missed day of training camp. They can also dock each guy the equivalent of a game check -- 1/17th of his salary -- for missing a preseason contest. And if an under-contract player doesn't report by Aug. 5, he loses an accrued season.


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The trouble for the team is that these decisions aren't made in a vacuum. Normally, the player is prominent -- remember, he has to have the clout to follow through -- to the point that the rest of the roster is going to be closely watching how he's treated. And if you find a way to pressure him into returning, the player's mindset becomes a question that is likely to bubble to the surface.

"First of all, you can lose the locker room, especially if he's really popular," one former NFL general manager said. "And that means it's a distraction not just to the player, but to the entire group. Then, if he comes back, is he all in? Say he's back for opening day, and he's not all in. So then you're getting maybe 20 snaps of the player you previously had for 70 snaps. That's real. You need to be careful."

The ex-exec called everything that happens before training camp "100 percent bluster." After that, it normally comes down to who has more resolve. The club will try to treat it as it would an injury, but the closer the season gets, the harder it is to do that.

Take the example of Watt. He's due $1.91 million this year and, with Houston exercising the fifth-year option that came with his being a first-round pick, $6.97 million in 2015. In 2016, the Texans could apply the franchise tag to him. The defensive end franchise figure this year was $13.12 million; figuring it'll go up the next two years, you could guess the club will have control of Watt for roughly $23 million -- well below market value -- over the next three seasons. Not a great deal for Watt.

"If J.J. holds out, what are they gonna do?" asked a second agent. "Alienate him?"

And there's the leverage against the team. Watt could correctly determine that the team has control of him in 2015 anyway, and so long as he reports on time then, he'll get the four accrued seasons he needs to reach free agency, even if he doesn't achieve that total this year. So if he tries holding out now, coming off back-to-back first-team All-Pro seasons, there might not be a whole lot to lose.

The institutional equity a coach/GM has plays into that, as well. Those at the start of their tenures -- former Titans coach Mike Munchak was in that position in Tennessee when Johnson held out -- have to tread carefully. Those on the hot seat do, too, for different reasons -- namely, needing the players to perform so that they can keep their own jobs. Frankly, few coaches have the ground to stand on that a Bill Belichick or Sean Payton or Pete Carroll does.

There's also institutional equity in a team's history. That the Texans traditionally have taken care of their own (Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Duane Brown, Brian Cushing) should give Watt confidence that they'll negotiate fairly with him. Four years ago, when Darrelle Revis held out as a member of the New York Jets, the deals the team executed earlier in the offseason with Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson equaled currency in the locker room.

For the player

Money matters, to be sure. Different teams handle fines different ways, though even the hardest of the hard-liners aren't going to completely fleece the player. "If you're the player, and you're telling me you're gonna charge me $30,000 a day, I'm not coming back," the second agent said.

So that's a consideration.

Even more important, though, might be the juncture at which a player is at in his career.

The issue of the accrued season is most crucial for those with less than the four it takes to be eligible for unfettered free agency -- a category that 2011 third-round pick Justin Houston falls into heading into the final year of his rookie deal. Holding out past Aug. 5 means losing the accrued season, which would mean that Houston would be a restricted -- rather than an unrestricted -- free agent next offseason.

There's also the matter of the impact a player can expect to make post-holdout. Young players and guys with new coaches can hurt themselves in the fall by sitting out the summer, which ultimately will affect their earning power.

"When you're young, you lose a lot more, you do need the reps," the second agent continued. "Younger guys need to learn to play and get on the same page as teammates. On the flip side, in the (Vernon) Davis case, he's had the same quarterback for (a few) years, he knows the offense, he won't miss a beat. So he can say to the Niners, 'You're not gonna push me around.' "

In that case, there's also financial history. The first agent said, "Vernon's deal was a bad deal when he did it, and if you weren't happy then, you're not gonna be happy now." So there might be raw feelings, and enough money on Davis' end to withstand the threat of fines and lost wages.

The ultimate leverage, of course, is the willingness -- perceived or real -- to carry the strike into the season.

The problem for many of the 2011 first-round picks (Watt being in that group) is that, when you add up the fines, taking things that far can mean the equivalent of playing the season for free. As for the lower-round picks, if the teams want to hold their feet to the fire, they actually could wind up losing money.

"What are you trying to accomplish?" an NFC executive said. "Now, I could see a bunch next year, with the guys in their (option) years, because if they're getting fined $1 million, they're making $7 million or $8 million anyway and it might be worth it to avoid getting franchised. But I don't see anyone caving to anyone in the '11 class this year, because if you're gonna do that, you might as well do a deal."

The general takeaway

The conclusion here? As the 2011 CBA matures and we get more long-term answers, what's becoming obvious is that there are fewer players with enough motivation to hold out. In fact, ultimately, it might boil down to just two groups.

The first group is the one that Davis is in, as a veteran player who has a long history of production and is outplaying his second contract. The second one is the one that many 2011 first-round picks will populate: The players who will go into their option year of 2015 trying to avoid the franchise tag in 2016.

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There are also the unsigned guys on the tag (see: New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham), though they aren't subject to all the penalties above, as they aren't under contract. (Not to mention, they only need six games on the active roster to accrue the season.) And really, if they aren't signed, they aren't technically holding out, anyway.

The flip side here is that because it's harder to hold out, a player is sending a stronger message by pursuing this course of action.

But as Chris Johnson can attest now -- three years later, having since been cut by the Titans -- clubs are rarely afraid to send similar messages to players they deem as poor values. And that means it's important to get what you can while you can.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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