Published November 20, 2014
It's mandatory minicamp week in the NFL, the time of year when the stars often don't come out to play.
This offseason's collection of absentees reads like a venerable who's who of big-ticket names, a group containing such A-listers as Drew Brees, Ed Reed, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Matt Forte, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons. And in what's become as accepted and customary a practice as any rite of the league's spring period, most of those no-shows are counter responses from players who have received franchise-tag designations from their respective team aimed to facilitate long-term contract negotiations.
Of course, the most celebrated of those cases belongs to Brees, in light of the record-setting quarterback's VIP status and hefty (albeit entirely reasonable) contract demands. But there isn't a person alive who wholeheartedly believes that the New Orleans Saints and the greatest player in the team's history won't eventually find common ground on a transcendent multi-year pact prior to the July 16 deadline for signing franchise delegates.
The same goes for Rice, a fellow franchise assignee whose importance likely won't be taken for granted by his employers. The Baltimore Ravens have used the tag on a cornerstone member twice previously during the past three offseasons, with the maneuver leading to lockups of defensive linchpins Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on both occasions. And since teammate Reed's pre-camp retirement contemplations have become an almost annual occurrence, no one associated with the Ravens is taking the dynamic safety's latest soul- searching endeavor as anything more than a veteran's ploy to get out of some truthfully needless offseason work.
Forte, Bowe and Wallace (a restricted free agent) all lack any real leverage in their situations, meaning the odds are each will be present at next month's training camp with either a new deal in hand or after grudgingly signing their tender.
That leaves Jones-Drew's money-related beef with the Jacksonville Jaguars as the favorite to become the bad-blood event of this NFL summer, even though the standout running back's truancy from minicamp has received less attention from some national media outlets than a forecasted future holdout by New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis that's been based entirely on hearsay (for the record, Revis is in attendance at Jets minicamp). And when factoring in all the circumstances that surround this looming squabble, it's a problem that may not be resolved anytime soon.
Jones-Drew is fresh off his first career rushing title and has amassed more yards on the ground (4,321) than anyone in the league over the past three years, yet the mighty-mite's current $4.45 million salary for 2012 barely cracks the top 10 among those at his position. He's without question the best and most important player on a Jacksonville offense that would have been historically inept without his presence last season, has demonstrated extraordinary durability (at least 333 touches and just two games missed from 2009-11) and has clearly outperformed his contract for a team that has lots of cap room to spare at the moment.
The Jaguars have taken a hard-line stance on the matter, with general manager Gene Smith publicly stating he fully expects Jones-Drew to honor the two seasons that remain on the five-year, $31 million deal he signed back in 2009. And the organization has legitimate reasons to ask its star to oblige, considering how Smith stuck out his own neck on a player that was still somewhat unproven three years ago.
Jacksonville gave Jones-Drew a $9 million signing bonus and a $4.1 million base salary in 2009, when the still-emerging back was set to earn just $530,000 in the final year of his original rookie contract. It was a substantial show of faith at the time, as Jones-Drew had yet to put together a 1,000-yard campaign or prove he can handle the rigors of every-down work after splitting time with franchise icon Fred Taylor during his first three years in the league.
Jones-Drew entered his breakthrough 2009 season as the third highest-paid running back in the NFL, but latter-day market developments have rendered the three-time All-Pro a major bargain at his present rate of pay. Six of his peers -- Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, DeAngelo Williams and Marshawn Lynch -- have inked multi-year agreements that average between $7.75 and $14 million per season over the last 10 months, with Rice and Forte also ready to climb over Jones-Drew on the salary scale even if both end up resigned to accepting the $7.7 million franchise number.
Therefore, Smith's prior display of loyalty probably isn't going to win over Jones-Drew and his camp, nor will it earn much goodwill with a fan base that holds the hard-nosed 27-year-old with the utmost reverence.
Not when the Jaguars haven't notched a winning record or made the playoffs for four straight seasons.
Not when Smith's hand-picked quarterback of the future, Blaine Gabbert, failed miserably in his 2011 rookie debut.
And not when this year's first-rounder, wide receiver Justin Blackmon, embarrassed the organization with a DUI arrest less than six weeks after the character-conscious Smith traded up to land the former Oklahoma State All- American with the fifth overall selection.
Plus recent history has shown that an extended holdout really isn't to the benefit of either Jones-Drew or the Jaguars. Jacksonville needs only to recall the fate of one of its AFC South cohorts placed in a similar predicament last summer for a warning lesson.
Johnson was coming off a 1,364-yard effort with Tennessee in 2010 and was two years removed from eclipsing the cherished 2,000-yard barrier when he and the Titans engaged in a long contract dispute that lasted into early September. The speedy playmaker came out of the standoff with a lucrative $53.5 million new deal, but proceeded to have by far the least productive season of his four-year career, netting a modest 1,047 yards while being held to 35 or less in six of the Titans' 16 games.
Larry Johnson endured a comparable fate after holding out deep into August of the 2007 season, recording just 559 yards and a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry before landing on injured reserve midway through that campaign. The then- Kansas City workhorse had amassed over 1,700 yards in each of the previous two years. Steven Jackson also experienced a slight decline in effectiveness following a prolonged training camp absence in 2008, with the St. Louis veteran barely surpassing the 1,000-yard mark and missing four games due to injury that year.
So you see, the Jaguars are in a delicate situation that really would be best resolved sooner rather than later. While Jones-Drew's future has received most of the headlines, Smith may the one who has the most at stake in the matter.