Le'Veon Bell owns a once-in-a-generation running style. This month will reveal if his negotiating style was once-in-a-generation, too, or whether Bell's season-long holdout in 2018 -- which resulted in him forfeiting the $14.5 million he would have been paid by the Steelers on the franchise tag before landing a four-year, $52.5 million deal from the Jets in March -- set the groundwork for other players to fight harder for their worth.
This is not the NBA, where guaranteed contracts and forward-thinking players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard impressively wield their influence, turning the uneven power dynamic between professional athletes and the front office on its head. NFL player empowerment has a long way to go in comparison, but this year's crop of holdouts offers clues as to how the system is already changing.
Ezekiel Elliott is only entering the fourth year of a five-year rookie contract, withholding his services a full season earlier than Khalil Mack did when he established a template for these sorts of standoffs by forcing a trade from Oakland last year. Saints wideout Michael Thomas skipped work to open camp despite being on his rookie contract and was rewarded with the richest deal for a receiver in NFL history. In the past, camp holdouts usually came from veterans unhappy with the franchise tag. (Jadeveon Clowney is an example this season.) Now, players are seeking their market value earlier and more aggressively than before, no longer waiting for their rookie contracts to end before attempting to secure big raises.
There are five remaining veteran holdouts following Thomas' deal, each with their own unique set of contract complications and pressure points. But who has the most leverage? Glad I asked:
5) Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
Clowney doesn't quite belong on this list, because he's not technically holding out. Assigned the franchise tag back in March, Clowney remains unsigned, with no ability to negotiate a contract with any team, including the Texans. The July 15 deadline to complete a contract extension beyond 2019 with Houston passed without the two sides coming close to a deal. That's possibly the result of Clowney's injury history and Houston's other contractual commitments to defensive lineman J.J. Watt and receiver DeAndre Hopkins (currently on extensions), with a new contract for quarterback Deshaun Watson (entering Year 3 of his rookie deal) looming around the corner. While no fan will feel sorry for Clowney, the reality is, he's entering his sixth season without yet getting to free agency, thanks to the fifth-year option that came with his being a first-round pick and the franchise tag. That's the type of situation the NFL Players Association should want to avoid when negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. (The current CBA is set to expire after the 2020 season.)
Skipping training camp is just delaying the inevitable for Clowney, who has no intention of forfeiting his scheduled weekly paychecks nearing $1 million. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero spoke to a source who talked to Clowney and said he'd be "shocked" if the Pro Bowler missed any regular season games, so expect Clowney to arrive sometime in late August or early September.
4) Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Bell said recently he was "proud" of Gordon for holding out and knowing "his worth," noting the "nice little bond" the two backs have going back to their days in the Big Ten (Gordon played at Wisconsin, Bell at Michigan State). There are some major differences, however, when comparing their respective holdouts.
Gordon is no Le'Veon Bell on the field. The best form of leverage possible is possessing undeniable, turf-scorching talent, and Gordon falls somewhere below the NFL's top five running backs. Gordon is a difference-maker who can do damage in any situation or on any down, but he's simply not as dynamic as Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara or players of that stature. Gordon's production would be difficult to fully replace, but the Chargers aren't just honking when they talk up backups Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, who both excelled when Gordon missed time a year ago. The running game could survive without Gordon.
The contract Gordon is playing under doesn't help his leverage, either. While Bell was staring down his second straight franchise tag, Gordon is due $5.605 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Gordon can't realistically sit out the entire season, because then he still wouldn't be a free agent in 2020. He'd have to return at some point this season in order to get credit for playing in 2019.
However, it wouldn't be a huge shock for Gordon to miss regular-season games. Like Bell, Gordon seems to be motivated by a higher purpose of adjusting the running back market. Gordon has called running back the hardest position in football outside of quarterback, and he's stressed that you "can't replace a great back" like him. Gordon has said he's prepared to sit out as long as he needs to, while his agent told Pelissero there's a "strong possibility" he'd hold out into the regular season, absent a new deal.
All reporting indicates that the two sides aren't particularly close on a new contract, with NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reporting Thursday that Gordon wants more than the $10 million per year being offered by the team. Rapoport also noted that the Chargers aren't interested in fulfilling Gordon's trade request, another sign this standoff could grow uglier. I don't think the Chargers are going to pay Gordon anywhere near Todd Gurley money (the Rams back signed a four-year, $60 million extension last year, heading into the fourth year of his five-year rookie contract), and Gordon sounds too dug in to take a discounted contract. While Gordon doesn't rank high in leverage, he'd be first on my list of holdouts who could miss regular-season games. As Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Joey Bosa learned, this Chargers ownership group is not afraid to let holdouts drag out.
3) Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Like a lot of stories in Jacksonville, Ngakoue's holdout has stayed mostly under the radar. That's typical of an unheralded career that has seen Ngakoue emerge as one of the game's best pure speed rushers after falling to the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Jaguars know Ngakoue, who has racked up 29.5 sacks in three seasons, is dramatically underpaid at $2.025 million, and his price will only go up next offseason, when he's scheduled to reach free agency. But negotiations are complicated by the outrageous contract Tom Coughlin handed Blake Bortles last year. Bortles is gone, but the contract is costing the Jaguars$16 million in dead money this season.
Ultimately, a deal is expected to be worked out, partly because Ngakoue does have leverage. The Jaguars know he's a vital part of their present and future. A little too much attention has been paid in Jacksonville to a soft early-August deadline, by which he must show up to ensure qualifying for an accrued season and, thus, unrestricted free agency in a year. But that deadline is meaningless if the Jaguars can work out an extension, and luminaries as wide-ranging as ESPN's Michael DiRocco, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone and CBS' Pete Prisco have all expressed confidence the contract will get done. This is a vital year for Marrone and Coughlin, and they don't appear likely to let this holdout get in the Jaguars' way.
Editor's note: Ngakoue ended his holdout sans a new contract and reported to training camp on Aug. 4.
2) Trent Williams, LT, Washington Redskins
The ultimate leverage is the ability to walk away, and Williams may already be gone from Washington for good, if only in his mind. The seven-time Pro Bowler might be the game's best left tackle when healthy, and he doesn't have a ton of competition for the title of best Washington Redskins player of the decade. He's not happy with his contract, but his absence from training camp goes deeper than that because he's frustrated with the Redskins' medical staff.
That enmity is why the Redskins have apparently changed their outlook regarding Williams in recent days. When camp opened, coach Jay Gruden said he expected Williams back soon. A week later, the team signed Donald Penn to play Williams' position. Penn revealed to reporters that he spoke to Williams before joining the team, a sign that everyone involved knows exactly where this situation is headed.
Jeff Howe of The Athletic reported Wednesday that Williams is now on the trade block, and teams like the Texans, Browns or Patriots make for logical landing spots. If the Texans could get a second-round pick in exchange for Duane Brown two years ago, perhaps the Redskins could land something similar for a player who is only 31 years old and could someday get Hall of Fame consideration. His current health, which is a mystery, is the biggest X-factor. Still, exceptional talent and financial security are two excellent sources of leverage, and Williams has plenty of both. He should be an ex-Redskin before long.
1) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
On paper, Zeke may have the worst case for a new contract of anyone on this list. He has two years left on his rookie deal, and his top-five-pick rookie contract was fully guaranteed. While he's been a standout since hitting the field, he was suspended six games in 2017 for violating the league's personal conduct policy stemming from domestic violence allegations.
Elliott doesn't play on paper, however. He plays for an owner in Jerry Jones who is desperate to win now, has a history of paying stars handsomely and is already incredibly invested in Elliott's career after pushing for him to be drafted No. 4 overall and building the offense around him. Cowboys executive Stephen Jones is in too deep to say now that he doesn't want to sign any market-setting contract.
The negotiations are complicated by a report from NFL Network's Jane Slater that the Cowboysdon't like how the Rams' deal for Todd Gurley is structured. Jerry Jones said last week the team doesn't necessarily need a rushing champion to win a Super Bowl. These are nice hardball tactics to employ in late July or early August, but Jones hasn't found the formula to even win a Divisional Round game for more than two decades.
Elliott, convinced of his worth after Jones' ceaseless praise for three years, is well aware of his value to the team and Jones' desperation to go further in the playoffs. That should be all the leverage Elliott needs.