Another year, another high-profile running back holdout.
But unlike Chris Johnson’s contractual impasse with the Titans in 2011, Maurice Jones-Drew’s face off with the Jaguars entails a very different context.
Johnson was operating under the terms of a slotted rookie contract. When drafted near the bottom of the first round in 2008, he had four options: (1) sign the deal that the Titans offered; (2) accept the one-year rookie minimum and play on a year-to-year basis until becoming a restricted free agent after three years and/or an unrestricted free agent after four (subject to the franchise tag); (3) sit out the full year and re-enter the draft; or (4) find another line of work.
Jones-Drew, in contrast, has decided to disregard the terms of a four-year extension that he signed in 2009, during his fourth NFL season. In order to get $17.5 million in guaranteed money, he agreed to be bound to the team through 2013, at base salaries that he now finds objectionable.
(In Jones-Drew’s defense, if he wasn’t performing well the team could cut him loose without violating the contract. But if the players wanted fully-guaranteed contracts, signing bonuses would reduce dramatically or go away entirely.)
While both Johnson and Jones-Drew technically violated their contracts, it’s easier to understand Johnson’s breach because he had no real options or leverage when he signed the deal as a rookie. Jones-Drew did; he could have played out his initial contract and eventually landed on the open market, even after a year or two under the franchise tag.
Jones-Drew had other options, within the confines of the four-year deal he negotiated. He could have insisted, for example, on significant escalators or incentive payments based on, for instance, leading the NFL in rushing in 2011 — which he accomplished. Or he simply could have asked for higher base salaries, accepting the risk that if he wasn’t playing at a level justifying those amounts, the Jaguars could have squeezed him to take less or cut him loose.
Regardless of context or who’s right and who’s wrong, Jones-Drew knows that if he waits a couple more years to complete his current contract, he won’t be nearly as valuable as he is right now. And so the only leverage he has is to withhold services, even if it costs him at least $63,000 for skipping minicamp — and even if it costs him $30,000 per day once training camp opens.