When it comes to generating backup leverage, there aren’t many viable options.
One possible approach comes from the strategy used four years ago by former Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. After three NFL seasons, when the window opened for a second contract, he stayed out of training camp.
It worked in the end. Elliott signed a contract that paid him $47.44 million over four yearsbefore the Cowboys ripped up the remaining four years of the deal.
Elliott’s hold gave him a seventh season that he probably wouldn’t have gotten if not for the contract structure. His $12.4 million salary in 2022 became fully guaranteed in March 2021. Without that trigger, the Cowboys almost certainly would have released Elliott a year early.
If Elliott hadn’t stayed out after three seasons, the Cowboys might have signed his first-round rookie contract for five years, franchise-tagged him once, and then walked away. Elliott forced the Cowboys to give him the kind of financial security he would never get, as he didn’t show up to camp in 2019.
It’s a viable strategy, for young running backs who put together a pretty strong third season. Elliott had 1,434 rushing yards in 2018, setting the stage for the holdout.
Christian McCaffrey received his big contract from the Panthers after his third undrafted season; Becoming the third player in league history to generate over 1,000 yards while receiving over 1,000 yards prompted Carolina’s decision to pay him. Drafted in 2017, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and Alvin Kamara also received big contracts after three seasons from the Vikings, Bengals, and Saints, respectively.
The 2018 draft included Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb. The Browns gave Chubb a second contract after three seasons. Barkley, who tore his ACL in 2020, didn’t get one from the Giants.
In 2020, the Colts drafted Jonathan Taylor and the Ravens selected JK Dobbins in round two. Both are eligible for second contracts. Neither has received one yet. And neither had the kind of third season that makes it easy to take a stand. Taylor missed six games with an ankle injury, and Dobbins missed nine due to ongoing issues with a torn ACL in 2021. (That said, Dobbins finished the 2022 season in impressive fashion.)
However, if Taylor and Dobbins want to get their contracts out now, without the risk of being franchise tagged in 2024, they could take a stand. Even with a disappointing third season, they should consider taking a stand.
It’s a calculated risk, to be sure. But it will get the team’s attention.
The other approach, which has become popular in recent years, is to hold in. The player shows up but doesn’t practice until he gets the contract he wants. While it avoids holding fines, the team can eventually tell the players, “Okay, time to go to work.” (That happened last year with the Bears and linebacker Roquan Smith.)
Whether it’s retention or retention, three years is the key. That’s when second contracts can be obtained from current backers. And that’s when they should make a strategic effort to get what they deserve.
If they don’t do it then, they may never get the second contract they deserve.