Training camp is often defined by the players who don’t show up. This year is no different. Five star players have failed to report to camp this year: Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, Jaguars pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, and Washington left tackle Trent Williams. These holdouts look similar in a headline, but the underlying realities of why each player isn’t in camp are starkly different. Let’s cut to the core of each situation and explain why each player didn’t show.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott’s situation has been compared to that of Todd Gurley last year. L.A.’s star running back didn’t hold out, but he did leverage a fantastic Offensive Player of the Year campaign in 2017 into a massive extension in the offseason before ending 2018 fighting a knee injury that may linger into this upcoming season and beyond. It’s not a good comparison. Gurley’s knee was known to be a major risk coming out of college. Elliott missed six games in 2017 due to an NFL suspension following an investigation that found accounts of domestic violence to be credible, but he’s never missed an NFL game due to injury. Even if Elliott isn’t as much of an injury risk, the broader running back devaluation conversation still applies. But according to Dallas beat writers, the Cowboys braintrust believes their future glory lies in their (increasingly distant) past. They built one of the most talented and expensive offensive lines in football and drafted Elliott at no. 4 overall, apparently trying to recreate the days of Emmitt Smith. Dallas wants him around.
The issue is Elliott isn’t the only talented youngster on a cheap rookie contract whom the Cowboys want to keep around. In the words of Marlo Stanfield, this is one of them good problems. The Cowboys have many crucial starters entering the final year of their contract: quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Jaylon Smith, and right tackle La’el Collins. Meanwhile, Elliott is under contract through 2020 and could be franchise tagged in 2021 and 2022. Dallas can’t sign all of these players to big deals, creating a game of musical chairs in which Elliott has the worst odds of finding a seat. Prescott getting extended is almost a lock (Jerry Jones has said as much), and he’ll likely receive more than $30 million annually. Considering the Cowboys gave up a first-rounder for Amari Cooper, he’s also a near-lock for an extension. That puts Jones, Collins, and Smith competing for a contract extension (think of that scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker does tryouts). It’s impossible to blame Elliott for trying to strike while the iron is hot, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get the deal he wants. By holding out, Elliott is trying to cut in line—or, to stick with the musical chairs analogy, he’s trying to sit before the music stops.
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
If Elliott is playing musical chairs, Thomas is playing chicken. Thomas has been so effective for New Orleans it would be surprising if they did not pay him. The question is when. NFL salaries don’t always make perfect sense, and many contract negotiations revolve around star players wanting their contract to slightly top that of the highest paid player so they can claim the salary crown. It often ends up with everyone having 15 minutes of fame as the highest paid player at their position. That trend is most visible at quarterback. Aaron Rodgers signed a deal for $22 million annually in 2013, then Joe Flacco signed one for $22.1 million annually, and suddenly guys like Derek Carr, Matt Stafford, and Jimmy Garoppolo were inking deals to become the league’s highest paid player one incremental gain at a time. But it also happens at other positions, most memorably last year when Aaron Donald signed the richest contract for a defensive player ever at $22.5 million per year, and then within 24 hours Khalil Mack reached a deal with Chicago for $23.5 million annually. This is what’s happening at wide receiver, but with four different players.
The current leader at wideout is Odell Beckham Jr. at $18 million annually on average. Michael Thomas may be hoping to get a deal topping him—say, $18.5 million annually—but there’s three other star receivers looking for a deal. Atlanta’s Julio Jones reported to training camp because Falcons owner Arthur Blank gave his word they would get a new deal done. Cincinnati’s A.J. Green is also looking for a new contract extension. The aforementioned Amari Cooper also needs a new contract, and while he’s the least proven of the three, his youth combined with the first-rounder Dallas gave up for him gives him leverage. The first of these receivers to sign a deal could get $18.5 million annually. The fourth could get $20 million annually. That creates a game of chicken between Thomas, Jones, Green, and Cooper. It’s not just about the money; the order of operations matters. The Saints are reportedly “comfortable” making Thomas the highest-paid receiver, but if the 2018 first-team All-Pro wideout wants to retain that title for more than a few days, he should be in no hurry to sign.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Gordon’s holdout has been lumped in with Elliott’s because they are both top running backs nearing the end of their rookie deals. This is also an imperfect comparison. Gordon, unlike Elliott, has backups who have performed well in his absence. Los Angeles’s Austin Ekeler was one of the most efficient running backs in football last year on a per-carry and per-reception basis. Also unlike Elliott, Gordon has a history of injuries, including a sprained MCL late last year. The Chargers likely look to the Rams and see a cautionary tale of paying big money to a running back with existing knee issues—especially when the team has fared decently well without him, as street free agent C.J. Anderson did with the Rams in the playoffs. Gordon publicly announced his holdout, and his reported openness to a trade likely means the Chargers are unwilling to pay him what he’s seeking. It’s cold, but it’s calculated. It also might be the new reality.
Gordon’s response is also calculated. His agents have floated the idea that he’ll skip games if he does not get a new team or a new contract. If Gordon ends up skipping games, he could be taking an even bigger risk than what Le’Veon Bell ventured last year when he took off the entire season. Bell did not sign his tag, so technically he was not under contract, so the Steelers could not fine him. The Chargers can fine Gordon, and they will. A moral stand is a lot easier when you’re not cutting a $30,000 check every day. Perhaps a team that needs his skill set and has cap room, like the Texans, swoop in. But odds are he returns and plays for the Chargers this season before going elsewhere in free agency in March.
Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ngakoue has 29.5 sacks in three seasons and is an ideal Robin to Calais Campbell’s Batman for a Jaguars team that is defined by its defense. On a star-studded team, Ngakoue is perhaps the squad’s most underrated player and also one of the most underpaid. He is set to earn $2 million on the final season of his rookie deal despite being a far better player than San Francisco pass rusher Dee Ford, who just signed a deal worth $17 million annually.
The Jags are cap-strapped after adding Nick Foles in free agency, but most teams’ cap issues are a mirage, so re-signing Ngakoue shouldn’t be so complicated. What gives?
On another team, Ngakoue would be a simple case of locking up a key homegrown pass rusher for a franchise that values defense. The Jaguars are not another team. Last year they committed $60.7 million to their defensive line, the most expensive position group in NFL history by nominal dollars. They’ve trimmed that price down quite a bit by cutting defensive tackle Malik Jackson and restructuring defensive tackle Marcel Dareus’s deal, but resigning Ngakoue could vault that unit back toward the most expensive group in the NFL. Plus, there’s another concern:
That’s Jalen Ramsey arriving to training camp in an armored car. Ramsey was the first true freshman cornerback to start at Florida State since Deion Sanders, he tries to entertain like Deion Sanders, and he fully expects to be paid on his second contract like Deion Sanders. Despite being on the same timeline as Ezekiel Elliott, Ramsey showed up to training camp this year. The Jaguars aren’t just thinking about signing Ngakoue, but also about how rewarding Ngakoue’s holdout could set a precedent that ensures Ramsey holds out next year in his contract negotiations. Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin, a former coach, may take holdouts more personally than other executives, and he’s already had disagreements with Ramsey this year about missing voluntary team activities. It’s not enough to derail Ngakoue’s extension, but it might make a front office that reportedly believes a player’s pay leads to credibility in the locker room think carefully about how they pay their veterans.
Trent Williams, Washington
This offseason Williams had a benign growth on his head removed, and he is reportedly upset about how Washington’s medical staff handled the situation. Details are scarce, but it is another example of how athletes and team doctors can sometimes have a conflicted relationship. As CBS’s Jason La Canfora reported in June, Williams’s issues with the team are “not financial at all” and his trade demand was because of “their handling of his recent medical situation.”
If Williams does not want to play for Washington this season, the team is planning to start former first-rounder/Giants washout Ereck Flowers, who was as effective as a subway turnstile in his three and a half seasons for New York. If Williams does report, he may parlay his holdout into a new contract that gives him a raise above the inferior tackles who have passed him by average annual value. While the other four holdouts are somewhat typical, this situation could become the most important to watch.