Melvin Gordon is holding out. The Los Angeles Chargers running back did not make an appearance Wednesday at the first day of training camp and was placed on the reserve/did not report list.
It comes as no surprise after Gordon made clear earlier in July he does not intend to return to the Chargers without a new contract.
Chargers GM: ‘I understand his thoughts and opinions’
But his absence was obviously notable Wednesday and prompted a response from general manager Tom Telesco, who maintained a congenial public tone about the team’s private negotiations with their Pro Bowl running back.
"I love Melvin Gordon," Telesco told reporters. "He's an excellent player. He's tough. He has a great work ethic and represents our organization extremely well. But he's not here.
"I understand his thoughts and opinions of what he's going through. I always look at the player's side, so I can see it. It doesn't mean I agree with it, but I can kind of see what his thought process is."
Gordon slated to make well below market value
It’s not hard to understand what Gordon is thinking and feeling. A 26-year-old running back approaching the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, Gordon is slated to make $5.6 million this season.
The salary is part of a predetermined pay schedule that Gordon has no control over. When Gordon signed his rookie deal in 2015, he had no negotiating leverage over the length or terms of his deal. Rookies in the NFL sign deals commensurate with where they’re drafted based on terms that were collectively bargained before they joined the league.
Gordon’s contract came with a fifth-year team option, as do those of all first-round draft picks. After posting his second Pro Bowl season in four years, the Chargers recognized that Gordon was a bargain and exercised that fifth-year option that comes in well below market value for a player who produces like Gordon.
Running backs pressured to cash in early
Gordon, playing a position in the NFL that carries a notoriously short shelf life, intends to maximize his value while he still has leverage. He’s at the height of his skills and wants to get paid his true market value before teams tell him he’s too old.
Players not paid for past performance
From the team side, NFL contracts, like all pro sports, are determined by what teams expect players to do moving forward, not a reward for past performance.
This leaves talented young running backs in a particularly difficult position given the realities of rookie contracts. And until and unless the collective bargaining agreement puts running backs in better position to maximize their value, situations like Gordon’s are going to become the norm.
Other holdouts inevitable?
We could see it in Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott this year or next as he finds himself in a similar position to Gordon. Unless the Giants opt to offer Saquon Barkley an early extension, a holdout in New York down the road seems inevitable.
It’s not to say that players at other positions who outperform their rookie deals also don’t find themselves in difficult negotiating positions. But quarterbacks who establish themselves in the league can generally expect multiple big paydays after their rookie deals expire.
Gordon says he wants to stay with Chargers
This is not a luxury afforded to top-tier running backs, who rarely maintain their level of productivity beyond their late 20s. Gordon’s time to capitalize on his talent is now. And he’s holding his ground as training camp begins.
“I want to end up with the Chargers,” Gordon said July 13. “That’s my home. I’m not going to sit here and be like, ‘Man, I don’t want to go back to the Chargers, dah, dah, dah.’ Like that’s the team that blessed me with an opportunity.
“But it’s an opportunity right now where I know I need to take advantage of it. You know, I want to get paid. That’s just kind of what it is.”
Teams not incentivized to pay RBs early
General managers whose job is to acquire and maintain talent under the constraints of a salary cap are incentivized to cash in on bargains like Gordon’s fifth-year option. It’s easy to understand why Telesco and the Chargers would maintain their stance.
Telesco told reporters that the Chargers had offered Gordon a new deal. There’s no telling what that extension looked like, but it was obviously not to Gordon’s liking.
Until Gordon sees an offer he believes aligns with his fair-market value, he appears ready to continue to sit.
As long as that’s the case, the Chargers, their fans and the NFL will all suffer as one of the game’s most compelling talents remains on the sideline.
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