The outcry was great and loud when Ezekiel Elliott began his holdout what feels like a million years ago. Elliott’s decision to ask for a contract extension with two years left on his deal is an unprecedented move in today’s NFL, especially for a running back. But his efforts ultimately yielded fruit, and Elliott was handed a six-year deal worth $90 million and a whopping $50 million in guarantees by the Dallas Cowboys.
There are many takeaways from this deal that you will read about over the next few days; the changing of the running back market, the Cowboys’ win-now attitude, increasing guaranteed money across the board for players. But Elliott successfully negotiating not only a new contract from Dallas, but securing a record amount of guaranteed money at his position, may be a sign that a new era of player empowerment is coming.
The balance of power in the NFL has traditionally slanted aggressively towards the owners. The short average length of a career and the gigantic pool of players willing and ready to work for any amount of money meant playing hardball for more income was reserved for only the best of the best. That still remains true, and it’s why Elliott has a new deal while Melvin Gordon still wastes away butting heads with Chargers management. But in the last decade, the number of holdouts have decreased significantly since the days of the mid-to-late 2000s, where Darrelle Revis would hold out every other year and top draft picks would regularly miss camp to land a satisfying salary.
The tide has begun to turn the other way in recent years. Le'Veon Bell was a pioneer of sorts in this new age of player holdouts. He dared the Pittsburgh Steelers to call his bluff, and they did, refusing to give Bell an extension and letting him sit out a year. It ultimately hurt Pittsburgh more than it did Bell; the Jets gave the star running back a four-year deal worth $52.5 million with $27 million guaranteed at signing the year after he sat out, while Pittsburgh missed the playoffs entirely. Bell bet that his obvious talents would outweigh any “concerns” about his character after refusing to play, and sacrificing his body for another season for a team that wasn’t willing to give him what he felt was his due was worth those potential concerns.
Elliott did the same thing, but the payoff was even greater. His level of production was similar to Bell’s as a workhorse running back who led the league in touches and the engine that drives the offense. He bet Dallas was more likely to pay up than risk going into the season without their best player or the PR nightmare that would have come along with trading him. As it turns out, he was right.
This league is still run by the owners. But players are beginning to realize the power they hold to fight for what’s theirs. Jadeveon Clowney dictated his own trade destination not two weeks ago as he refused to sign the franchise tender until an agreeable trade was in place. Gordon has held strong in Los Angeles, and recent rumors suggest Chargers management might be close to giving up entirely and trading him away. More players are willing to bet their talent is worth more than the leverage their franchise has, and it’s slowly changing the landscape of the league as we know it.