NEW YORK — Saquon Barkley found himself in the presence of NFL greatness, seated to the left of Hall of Famers Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis. All three men helped set the standard for what Barkley wants to be: a dominant running back and, perhaps one day, a recipient of a coveted gold jacket.
But being the best is about more than just dominating on Sundays. It’s about understanding the game within the game. And for some of the league’s biggest stars, that means navigating the financial landscape of the modern-day NFL.
The stalemate between the Dallas Cowboys and running back Ezekiel Elliott is dragging into another week, with neither side willing to concede — at least publicly. And in Los Angeles, Melvin Gordon’s holdout from the Chargers continues to rankle members of the front office.
Meanwhile, in New York, Barkley — a bona fide star on and off the field — is years away from being able to test the market. But the second-year running back’s education in leveraging one’s worth already has begun.
“Think like a basketball player,” Tomlinson told Yahoo Sports, reiterating advice he’s previously shared with Barkley, the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. “Which means: Don't be caught up in staying with just one team or saying, ‘Oh, I want to be with this team so bad that I'm willing to take less.’ It’s a business at the end of the day.
“Basketball players, I respect them because LeBron [James] will say, ‘I’m out. This team ain’t doing what I need them to do, I’m going over here,' " Tomlinson said at NFL Network’s media night event Tuesday in Manhattan. "And I think sometimes, us football players get caught up in, ‘Oh, this is a family.’ If they pay you, then you can believe that.”
It’s a similar mindset shared by many current players. Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season in order to leave Pittsburgh behind and cash in with a new team. It’s why Jadeveon Clowney called an audible and chose not to sign his franchise tag with Houston. And it’s why Trent Willams still refuses to report to the Redskins.
Teams preach the importance of players buying in — that is, until the team doesn’t need or doesn’t want to pay what its star athlete believes he deserves.
“Teams play this game,” said Tomlinson. “Maybe ‘brainwash’ is too strong of a word, but they really get you to buy into this ‘team.’ You hear it all the time: hometown discount. ‘Is Dak taking a hometown discount? Zeke?’ You hear it all the time because they want you to. But if you get hurt, if you can’t play anymore — guess what? ‘Sorry, we’re pulling that contract. We’re not going to pay you that $20 million that you’re owed.’ ”
That perceived hypocrisy is what fuels players to start looking out for their self-interests. Even the all-time greats.
“I had to hold out several times and miss camp,” Sanders, who abruptly retired at the age of 31, told Yahoo Sports. “Yes, absolutely [get your money]. You’ve got to do it.”
“I set the market whenever I played,” said Tomlinson, who spent the first nine years of his 11-year career with the Chargers and ran for 13,684 yards and 145 touchdowns. “So I was already of the mindset that, ‘If I don’t get what I want, I’m out of here.’ But I was fortunate the team said, ‘You’re right. We’re going to pay you like this.’ So I didn’t have to hold out. I was prepared to do that. But I tell these young guys that right now: You’ve got to think like a basketball player.”
With the ongoing contract impasses involving Elliott and Gordon dominating the current news cycle, Sanders and Tomlinson can’t help but think back to their own careers and salary negotiations.
Although Sanders thought Bell “was giving up a lot of money” by sitting out last season, the Hall of Famer credited Bell for leveraging his financial worth.
“As a player, you have to say, ‘OK, I know my worth. This is what I'm willing to do to to establish that worth. Let the chips fall where they may.’ It's a gamble, but certain players need to take that gamble. And that’s what Lev Bell did,” Sanders said of the former Steeler, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the New York Jets in March. “He decided he's going after it. I would say that's pretty courageous.”
The devaluation of the running back position overall is often viewed as another ploy by teams to put a cap on a player’s overall value come negotiation time. To curb that, Tomlinson suggested running backs should be given shorter deals — two or three years maximum — that are fully guaranteed.
While Sanders and Tomlinson aren’t ready to declare Barkley the best running back just yet, both believe the former No. 2 overall pick is poised to be that guy very soon. Barkley’s rookie year — which included 1,307 rushing yards (second only to Elliott’s 1,434), 721 receiving yards and 15 total touchdowns — was proof that he was capable of carrying New York’s’ offense.
And in the not too distant future, the Giants loyalty will be tested — financially.
“When it comes around for his contract, he needs to be telling them, he’s the best,” Sanders said, with a laugh. “Or he should be in that conversation as one of the best running backs because he’s entering his prime. You look at what he did last year on a team that was very suspect.
“He shouldn’t have to [ever hold out]. But you know how these things are. Every year is different and how much they are going to allot for different individuals. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it. But he's such a great fit for this organization.”
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