NFL Contract Holdouts Running Backs Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley's Contract Holdout Is The Right Move

Earlier this month, Giants running back Saquon Barkley announced he's skipping New York’s minicamp amid a contract dispute with the Giants.

The Giants are hoping Barkley will play on the one-year, $10 million franchise tag, but the running back is looking for a long-term deal. So, Barkley busted out the one negotiation tool players have in their bag: the holdout. It’s a tactic many players, often running backs, have used in the modern NFL to get a long-term deal.

But, does it work? I’m breaking down the recent history of running back holdouts to figure out if it's the right move for Barkley:

What Is An NFL Contract Holdout?

A holdout in the NFL is when a player doesn't participate in mandatory offseason workouts, training camp, or (in some extremes) regular season games. The motivation is always dollars and cents. NFL contracts are largely unguaranteed, meaning a players is constantly at risk of being released if their performance slips or they get hurt. So, players can hold out to add more guaranteed money to their deals or to sign extensions when their contracts are close to ending.

The holdout doesn't come without consequences, though, as the NFL CBA allows teams to fine players $50,000 for every day of camp they hold out.

Recent RB Holdout Examples

Recent Running Back NFL Holdouts
PlayerHoldout YearGames MissedContract After HoldoutGuaranteed $
Saquon Barkley2023???
Alvin Kamara202005 years, $75 mill$34.3 mill
Ezekiel Elliott201906 years, $90 mill$50 mill
Melvin Gordon20194No extensionN/A
Le'Veon Bell2018164 years, $52.5 mill (with Jets)$27 mill

The Good: Alvin Kamara (2020)

New Orleans Saints RB Alvin Kamara entered the 2020 season coming off three straight Pro Bowl campaigns with 37 touchdowns in his first trio of years in the league. But, the 25-year-old was also entering the final season of his rookie contract, with less than $1 million in guaranteed money remaining on his deal.

The Saints' star offensive weapon decided to sit out August's minicamp, hoping for a long-term deal. And, lo and behold, the RB inked a five-year, $75 million extension 12 days later.

Kamara's holdout was short and sweet. Now 27 years old, the former Alabama star has remained productive and healthy following his extension. His holdout is a rare recent example where the contract resolution worked for both team and player.

The Bad: Melvin Gordon (2019)

Ahead of the 2019 season, the Chargers picked up a $5 million option for the final year of Melvin Gordon's contract with LA. The star running back looked around the league at the big deals for RBs Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, and David Johnson, and told the Chargers he would be sitting out if they didn't sign him to a comparable extension.

But, as Gordon's holdout leaked into the season, the situation backfired. Instead of highlighting his value to the team, Gordon's absence put a spotlight on rising star Austin Ekeler, who carried the offense in the meantime.

Gordon dropped his holdout a few weeks into the season, and made his Chargers debut in Week 5. In 11 starts for the rest of the year, the Chargers RB posted the least efficient season of his career since his rookie campaign (3.8 YPC, 51 YPG). With his value diminished after the rough season, Gordon signed 'just' a two-year, $16 million deal with the Broncos that offseason. He's since talked about how the holdout impacted his season and he regrets the move.

The Ugly: Le’Veon Bell (2018)

Lev is the most notable holdout in recent memory, sitting out the entire 2018 season after carrying the Steelers’ offense for the four years prior. The Steelers wanted him to play on the franchise tag (similar to the current Barkley season) but Bell wanted a lengthy payday.

After sitting out all of ’18, Pittsburgh eventually granted him free agency the next summer and he signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the New York Jets, making Bell the second-highest-paid RB in the league.

However, after the holdout and signing with the Jets, Bell’s career dropped off a cliff. He certainly got his payday, but the rusher played just one full season after the holdout (2019) and never averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry again.

So, Do Contract Holdouts Work For Running Backs?

Depends who you’re asking, right?

Most players got their money — Bell became the second-highest-paid rusher, Kamara got $75 mill, and the Cowboys caved to Zeke. But, all three payouts came with financial risk (see: Gordon), reputational risk (see: Bell), and only Kamara hasn't seen a significant drop in production since.

The real losers from the recent RB holdouts have been the teams that caved. The Jets certainly regret paying Bell, releasing him just 19 months after signing. The Cowboys probably aren't happy they paid Ezekiel Elliott, either, as he quickly became a second option to Tony Pollard in the Dallas RB room.

There’s a reason teams don’t pay running backs in the modern NFL, they’re the most recycled and abused positions in the league. With teams so willing to cast aside productive RBs for younger, healthier, and cheaper options, it makes sense for running backs to hold out for the payday when they can. They know teams are going to cast them aside as soon as it's profitable to do so.

But, simultaneously, it's those very same reasons it makes sense for the teams to not pay the RBs. As long as you don't tie yourself to a big contract RB, you can almost always find that younger, healthier, and cheaper option. Through all the complications of an NFL holdout, both team and player seem to be in the right, from a decision-making perspective.

Giants Should Cave To Saquon Barkley

All that said, the New York Giants and Saquon are in a unique situation. Sure, the falloff of Lev Bell and Zeke Elliot are warning signs New York shouldn’t ignore. But, can the Giants afford to be without Barkley? They might actually be better accepting that risk, if the alternative is losing Barkley for a year or forever.

Saquon is literally New York’s entire offense and a legit NFL MVP candidate. Last year, Barkley rushed for 1,312 yards, and caught 338 more. He and QB Daniel Jones combined to account for almost half of New York's all-purpose yards. Barkley and Jones were the only skill position players on the Giants to start at least 12 games last year.

If the Giants let Barkley holdout or walk, the New York offense will be Jones handing the ball off to Matt Breida and passing it to Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton. Even though the above case studies show paying RBs is risky, it's a risk the Giants have to take if they want to return to the postseason.

Will Saquon Barkley Miss Week 1 Because Of A Holdout?

Oddsmakers agree that this holdout won't last. They've set a -500 line at Barkley not missing Week 1 this year and a -220 line that he'll sign a new contract prior to the regular season.