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Expect more MJD-style holdouts in the future

Jones-Drew's problems go back to how he was viewed as a college prospect.

The Maurice Jones-Drew holdout is slightly different than the typical holdouts we see every summer. As a 27-year-old running back, Jones-Drew is seeking his last big contract. But with a new owner and regime in Jacksonville, management is understandably hesitant to give a large contract to a player who already has two years remaining on his deal. The difference between Jones-Drew and most players is that this is his last chance to cash in. If he plays out his contract, even if he plays well the next two seasons, he’s unlikely to get a huge deal in 2014.

Would that be fair? I would hope that some of those writers who argued in favor of reducing rookie contracts would find such a result unjust, as a talented, star player should be rewarded with a big contract.1 But even if he performs well in 2012 and 2013, by 2014, Jones-Drew would be a 29-year-old runner who had just endured five years of punishment as a workhorse running back. No team would sign him to a large contract at that point, as he could not be expected to continue to produce at such a high level.

When it comes to running backs, it is understood that they must try to maximize their salaries when they are young, as big paydays for older runners are few and far between. But in this situation, some have argued that since this is Jones-Drew’s second contract, he should honor his deal (or, alternatively, that we should be less sympathetic to his cause). In 2009, Jones-Drew signed his second contract, and the argument goes that unlike a rookie contract — where players have almost no leverage — Jones-Drew already had his bite at the apple. But that argument ignores the fact that Jones-Drew’s rookie contract remains part of his current predicament.

Jones-Drew was a very good player in his first three seasons. From 2006 to 2008, only LaDainian Tomlinson scored more touchdowns. Jones-Drew ranked in the top ten during those years in yards from scrimmage and he was fifth in fantasy points among running backs. Technically, he wasn’t a starter — the Jaguars still had Fred Taylor — but Jacksonville released Taylor prior to the 2009 season.

Jones-Drew was the 60th pick in the 2006 draft. Rookies are generally signed to cheap deals, and Jones-Drew was no exception. He signed a four-year deal worth $2.75 million, which included a $1.15 million dollar signing bonus. Obviously, Jones-Drew’s first three seasons far exceeded what you’d expect from a late second round pick, and entering his fourth year, he was due to make just over $500K. At the time, he was arguably the second best running back in the league and was about to enter his age 24 season. In other words, on the open market in 2009, he would have been due for a huge payday.

But Jones-Drew still had a year left on his rookie deal, and the Jaguars could have franchised him for one or two more years after that. The 2010 franchise tag for running backs was just over $8 million, so he was looking at making under $9 million in 2009 and 2010 if he played out his rookie deal. This, of course, had a large impact on the negotiations. Jones-Drew would have been putting a lot at risk by playing out the 2009 season for half a million dollars, and then would likely be facing the same risks for a lot more money the next year. If he played well over the next two years, he’d likely be franchised again, or perhaps would finally be able to cash in with a big money deal.

In hindsight, we might argue that he should have done just that. Realistically speaking, though, asking an elite running back to play for near the league minimum isn’t a prudent option. So in 2009, the Jaguars signed Jones-Drew to a front-loaded, five-year contract worth up to $32 million. Having made — for NFL athletes — pocket change for three years, Jones-Drew was desperate for a payday. His cap hit each year ranged from $8 to $9 million, based on base salaries of between $4 to $5 million and roughly $18M in guaranteed money that he received over the first three years. Jones-Drew traded the chance for a bigger contract in two years for immediate financial security.

Now, though, Jones-Drew is scheduled to make only $9 million over the next two seasons, which no one disputes is under market value. As Paul Kuharsky noted, “Tennessee’s Chris Johnson is getting $13.5 million annually. Houston’s Arian Foster is making $8.7 million a year. And Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is earning $7.75 annually. St. Louis’ Steven Jackson, Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson also make more than Jones-Drew.” In case anyone forgot, Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last season, and averaged 4.7 yards per carry while playing with the most anemic passing game in the NFL.

Jones-Drew has outplayed his contract for the second time in his career — he’s arguably been underpaid nearly every season of his career — and while some would argue that his current contract was frontloaded, it is equally true that it was a below-market deal he was forced to sign. The true culprit here? Rookie salaries.

Let’s compare Jones-Drew to Reggie Bush, who makes for a good comparison since they were in the same draft class and it is uncontroverted that Jones-Drew is the better player. The second overall pick, Bush signed a six-year, $51 million deal, with just over half of that money guaranteed. He made roughly $40 million in his first five years in New Orleans before — after agreeing to restructure his deal — being traded to the Dolphins. With Miami, Bush signed a two-year deal which he will finish in 2011, picking up an additional $9.75 million. In other words, from 2006 to 2012, Bush will make about $50 million, while Jones-Drew if he chooses not to hold out will make roughly $30 million.

As a rookie, Adrian Peterson signed a five-year deal2 worth $40 million. After four years, he had earned $29 million, and was scheduled to make around $11 million in 2011. The Vikings instead resigned him to a monster seven-year deal that could be worth up to $100 million, including $40 million in the first three years. So from 2007 to 2013, Peterson will make about $70 million, while Jones-Drew will make $35 million from ’06 to ’13 if he plays out his contract.

Jones-Drew can’t go back in time and get himself a bigger contract, but his second-round status is still a factor. Most know that he chose the #32 because every team in the league passed on him, but he’s also been unable to make superstar money because of his draft status (coupled with his wise decision not to play out his rookie deal). Jones-Drew is understandably frustrated that he’s earned only a little more than half of what Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson have made, and Jones-Drew knows that he won’t be able to sign a big deal in two years at the age of 29. For Jones-Drew, it’s basically now or never. He could wait one more year, but he won’t have much leverage then.3 He’ll have one year left on his deal and the Jaguars could franchise him in 2014, meaning he’ll be 30 before he hits the open market. And don’t think he’s unaware that Jacksonville has the most cap space available of any team.

Practically speaking, it would be irresponsible of his agent not to advise Jones-Drew to hold out. Again, even if he rushes for 1500 yards in 2012 and then another 1500 the next year, if he shows even a hint of decline in December 2013, he’s going to struggle to get a large deal. Teams simply don’t pay old running backs large amounts of cash. I suspect the Jaguars will give in, but won’t break the bank. My guess is he’ll sign a four-year extension and get $25 million in guaranteed money. The sixth year will be worth $15 million or some absurd number that both sides know he won’t see but will make the contract sound bigger. He’ll play five more years in Jacksonville, taking him through age 31, before he’s released. The Jaguars will pay him about $40 million over the next five years, which will be a steal early on and probably be about right by the end.

The bigger issue for the NFL is that we should expect more of these in the future. Jones-Drew is an example of what happens when an elite player has a four-year rookie contract that doesn’t pay close to market value. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, this is going to happen much more frequently, and will affect first round picks. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin signed a four-year deal worth $6.8 million, including a $3.4 million signing bonus. After three years, he’ll have made $5.5 million and will be scheduled to make a paltry $1.3 million in 2015. If Martin turns out to be a star, you can be sure that he won’t be playing out his final season for the same reasons that Jones-Drew did not. And then in 2018, Tampa Bay fans may hate him for holding out even though he has two years left on his contract and Tampa Bay “tore up his contract” and “made him rich” just three years earlier with a huge, front-loaded deal.

The Players’ Association did get one large concession in last year’s labor negotiations, and that was the imposition of a salary floor. That may make it easier for some teams, specifically those that don’t normally spend close to the cap, to tear up rookie contracts and give something resembling ‘open-market’ deals to rising stars. Unfortunately for Jones-Drew, the salary floor doesn’t take effect until next season.

  1. This is obviously shtick, but I do find it hypocritical for owners to argue against paying “unproven” players and then to argue against paying aging players who “have little left” in the tank. Players should be paid for what we expect them to produce, and the “unrpoven” argument is and always has been a red herring. []
  2. Technically, it was a six-year deal, but the final season of his rookie contract was going to void. []
  3. Of course, one could argue that he doesn’t have much leverage now, either. []
  • Richie

    I don’t know a ton about the way the salary cap works.

    But why did either side agree to the front-loaded deal in 2009? It made no sense for MJD because if he played well, he’d be underpaid at the end (as is the case). But if he played poorly, Jacksonville would probably just cut him. The only way that deal made sense is if he ended up being a mediocre RB for the first few years. Good enough for Jacksonville to keep, but not so good that he would think he deserved more.

    Why wouldn’t he sign a 2 or 3-year deal for $8M+ per year? Then, if he was playing well he would be a free agent and can get market value.

    • Chase Stuart

      Because the Jags wouldn’t have offered him that. They had him under contract for a year and could have franchises him for two more, hence the five-year ‘extension’ they offered. Jacksonville wanted to tie him up for as long as they could and also have more years to spread the signing bonus around.

  • thad

    But do good or even great running backs help teams win? Does it make sense to pay any rb more than the minimum salary?

    • Andrew

      Well, that’s a loaded question. I think the answer is invariably that yes, adding an elite RB is always something that makes a team better, but it is not necessary to win games, nor does it automatically translate into wins. Really, this is dependent on the team and its offensive philosophy. For example, teams with developing or just terrible passing games benefit hugely from elite level RBs (see Vikings, Jaguars, 49ers, Titans, etc.). On the other end, teams with outstanding passing attacks find that they only truly require one decent back or can take a committee approach (see Saints, Patriots, Packers). Further still, you have teams with good, but not great, passing attacks that reap a lot of benefit from having solid running games (see Chiefs, Cowboys, Bears, Ravens, Falcons, etc.) Still another factor to consider is the skillset of the RB. While a player like Cedric Benson who just grinds out the yardage with terrifying consistency is an asset, noone is really scared by him. A dual threat who can damge you in both the passing and running game, like Ray Rice, Matt Forte, or LeSean McCoy, forces defenses to consider that player on every down to be a threat, and thusly makes things easier on the rest of the team. Then you have the unstoppable forces, the RBs who will gain large amounts of yardage either going through you or around, like MJD, Arian Foster, or Adrian Peterson (though he is quickly degrading into a grinder). And still you must consider the explosive RBs who can blow a game open in a single play (not to say the dominant RBs don’t, but they also tend not to have the same consistency issues as these guys), RBs like Chris Johnson, Darren Sproles, and Jamaal Charles. To make a long post short, no, RB is not yet a meaningless position, but you don’t need a superstar or even elite running back to win championships anymore.

  • Agree with the main thesis that MJD-style holdouts are more likely going forward for the reasons cited, but, of course, it’s a footnote that grabs my attention. Namely, that first one. Schtick aside — and understand I’m playing devil’s advocate here — is it really hypocrisy for an owner or GM to try to extract as much value as possible at all points in an employee’s career or is it just good business sense? On the front end of a player’s career, something like this (http://www.ninersnation.com/2010/4/21/1435657/logarithmic-decay-how-the-nfl) suggests rookie salaries were almost exactly in line with expected AV prior to the new CBA. Therefore, it makes perfect sense from a cost-benefit analysis for owners and GMs to fight hard in favor of a replacement system that anihilates the cost side things. On the back end, yeah, owners and GMs already have the upper hand, so no reason to lobby for change there.

    In other words, yeah, you and I may not like it from a hypocrisy/ethics perspective, but there’s certainly an argument to be made that owners and GMs would be failing their missions if they weren’t optimizing dollars spent on the front end, back end, middle, whenever.

    • Richie

      Danny, I don’t know how much the rookie pay scale changed last year, but one of the commenters pointed out below the article that the main problem from the old system lies in the first half (or maybe first 10 picks) of the draft. The very top picks generally don’t perform as well as the trend line suggests, while the very top picks appear to get paid more than the trend line suggests they should. I think this was somewhat fixed with the new CBA. (It also seems to solve the holdout problem.)

      I also think that some portion of a player’s career AV is going to be determined by his draft position. For instance, Matt Moore seems to be about a replacement-level QB. This means he is going to constantly see his teams try to bring in other players to challenge him at QB. But Mark Sanchez was a 5th overall pick, so the Jets give him a longer leash, assuming that he’ll one day play into that draft spot. Part of this is because Sanchez is seen as a “winner”. But he’s going to have a longer leash than Moore until/unless one of them has a real breakout (or fall on face) season.

      Matt Moore has actually had a better W-L percentage in each of his 4 seasons than all other QBs on his teams had in those seasons.

      Winning percentages:


    • Andrew

      It may not necessarily be the wrong thing for them to do money-wise, and financially it even makes sense, but I don’t view “I just wanted a few more millions to add to my money heap” as a good excuse for screwing a guy out of what the market says his talents are worth (however bloated that may be).

  • t.d.

    as a Jaguar fan, let me tell you that what we want from our new owner is not that he listen to national journalists calling for us to sign Tebow, or that we spend dis-proportionally on a running back who, even in a great season, helped us to a 5-11 record (with a good defense to boot). I’d be happy if they trade him to the Jets for a second rounder

  • Zac

    Jeez, if you think Jones-Drew got screwed by his contract, don’t look into how MLB players get treated. Geovany Soto was the 2008 Rookie of the Year. He has been and will continue to be tendered on a year to year basis at least until he’s eligible for free agency, at which point he will be a 31 year old catcher (the most physically demanding position in baseball excluding pitcher) and have made maybe $13 million (in a league where the average opening day player made $3.4 million in 2012). With his signing bonus, Jones-Drew made that in 2009 alone.