Tuesday is a big day for players to report; those who are in camp by today get an accrued season toward free agency. As a result, DeSean Jackson reported yesterday with one year left on his contract, so that he can get to free agency next year. Chris Johnson, meanwhile, is going to play a game of chicken with the Titans, and has not reported by the deadline.
Johnson’s situation and motivation is different. He plays a different position than Jackson, has an extra year on his contract (the result of being an late first round rather than early second round pick), and is two years older. DeSean Jackson, as a 24 year old receiver, may still have two veteran contracts to go in his career. Johnson, who will turn 26 in September, knows his value is at or near his peak.
Setting aside the specific monetary demands (he said he wanted $30 million guaranteed last year before returning to camp–I wouldn’t pay him that), I’ll always side with the running back philosophically in this situation. It’s the way the system is set up with non-guaranteed contracts, and where players who underperform are asked to take a pay cut. The running backs have shorter career peaks than the average player, and teams will lean on them heavily when they are on the rookie contract then turn around and have no reason to pay them later. That extra accrued season makes little sense for Johnson, which is why he hasn’t reported. He still has to play this year and next year, and then at age 28, the Titans can let him go (if he has hit the wall) or franchise him for one more season at a better salary but no long term money.
Earl Campbell carried the ball over 1,000 times in his first three years, averaging 4.9 yards a carry. In year 4, he still carried it a lot (361 times) but dropped to 3.8 yards per carry and was never the same. In today’s NFL, he would have played to the end of his rookie contract and earned little compared to his value to the team. Barry Foster had 390 carries in his third season, then got hurt, and never made it past five seasons. Terrell Davis blew out his knee in his fifth season. Gerald Riggs had 1,093 carries for the Falcons from age 24 to 26, and never had more than 203 in a season after that. Larry Johnson had 416 carries in year 4 in the league, the same as CJ this year, and then was done.
I list these examples not to say that it is bound to happen–guys like Payton, Emmitt, Barry, and Martin continued strong–because if it was guaranteed then the club would be dumb to pay at all. Rather, this is the leverage point, when the player still has value but the value could change quickly.
Chris Johnson must hold out now if he wants to make money approaching his worth in this league, and he must be willing to do it into the season if necessary, like Emmitt back in 1993. His leverage is the potential of this year, when the team is built around him, and when the team believes he might have three productive seasons to spread out guaranteed money.
[photo via Getty]