Last year, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell won his freedom from Pittsburgh by sitting out the entire season. This year, with Chargers running back Melvin Gordon threatening to do the same thing, some think that, like Bell, Gordon could end up forcing his way to free agency by literally doing nothing.
But there’s a big difference between the two players. Bell’s path to free agency came from the specific rules regarding the franchise tag. With Bell sitting out all of the season in which the franchise tag had been applied to him for a second time, the Steelers would have had to offer a franchise tender fueled by quarterback salaries in order to franchise tag Bell for a third time. The Steelers chose not to do that, and the Steelers also chose not to apply the right-of-first-refusal-only transition tag, which the Steelers eventually learned would have cost as much as Bell’s franchise tag would have cost in 2018 (i.e., $14.52 million).
Gordon still has a year left on his rookie contract. Sitting out the full year would simply push the final year of his rookie contract to 2020, at the same $5.605 million he’s due to make this year.
If Gordon chooses to miss regular-season games, he’d need to return by the Tuesday after Week 10 (but probably earlier due to the roster exemption for which the Chargers would be eligible) in order to get credit for the fifth and final year of his contract. The Chargers could still use the franchise tag or the transition tag on Gordon in 2020, but there’s no guarantee that they would.
Even if the Chargers franchise-tag Gordon, his salary would more than double for 2020. He then could skip all of the offseason program, training camp, and the preseason at no expense, he could make the full amount of his franchise tender by showing up as late as Labor Day weekend, and then he could sit out all of 2021 (if franchise-tagged again), forcing his way to free agency like Bell did for 2022.
That’s all theoretical. As a practical matter, Gordon needs to realize that, regardless of his personal beliefs as to the value of running backs, teams don’t see it that way. At any given moment in time, only a small handful of running backs are truly special (currently, they are Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and maybe Le’Veon Bell). Every special back is only one year or one big hit away from being readily replaceable but a much cheaper, younger, and healthier option right out of college.
Gordon falls into that “readily replaceable” category. He’ll find that out if/when he holds out, if/when he demands a trade, and if/when no team offers the Chargers significant compensation and Gordon market-value money in order to make a deal happen.
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t take a stand. It’s good to see players who are willing to defy and disrupt a system that, for many of them, simply isn’t fair. But any player who takes that stand needs to be standing on firm, solid ground. Gordon’s ground may not be nearly as firm or solid as he seems to think it is.