How much do NFL holdouts matter? Depends on which of these 5 superstars you're talking about

Circumstances vary for players such as Khalil Mack, Julio Jones, Earl Thomas and Aaron Donald

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You could start building a pretty formidable roster with some of the NFL stars who are choosing to stay away from their respective teams this June, with training camp on the horizon in a little more than a month.

Need to rush the passer? That’s what Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack do best — and both feel like they deserve more money for that skill. Donald doesn’t appear to be showing up to the Los Angeles Rams’ mandatory minicamps, the same for Mack with the Oakland Raiders. Throw in Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, and we might be talking about three of the 10 best defenders in football.

We’ve also got the offense covered with two rare specimens: Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Had Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski not shown up to Patriots workouts, we might have been on our way to building a roster of angry Pro Bowlers skipping work.

As of now, Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson could be added to the list, but there's optimism as he remains away from their minicamp that a new deal could be hammered out soon. So here’s a look at the five most notable holdouts and where things stand with each — and which situations people should be most concerned about getting resolved.

Julio Jones

There was some quiet hope in Atlanta that Jones might show up, but the Falcons released a statement that ended any of that positivity.

“We have been in contact with Julio and his representation,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We will not discuss those conversations publicly, except to say we feel they have been productive and constructive. We understand the concerns and thoughts from their perspective. Although not ideal, Julio informed us today he would not be attending mini-camp.

“We have much respect for him and what he means to our team, our city and our fans.”

The two sides have traded proposals, and Jones reportedly isn’t thrilled with the Falcons’ latest parry. That’s why he’ll remain elsewhere. Jones’ situation is different than the other holdouts in that he has three years left on his contract for a total of $35 million to be paid out. But there still are seven receivers making more on a per-year average than Jones does, including Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, who all received contract adjustments in the past five months.

But on a worry scale, this one is about a DEFCON 4 — there’s little fear Jones will skip training camp, which is when it really matters. He appears to just be sending a quiet but audible message that he would like to see a bit more scratch sooner rather than later.

Khalil Mack

Mack staying away from Oakland for the three-day mandatory minicamp, which is expected, will cost him about $85,000. But that’s a pittance in relation to what he’s seeking in an extension. Mack is in the final year of his rookie contract, the fifth-year option that the Raiders triggered, which will pay him $13.8 million this season before he’s eligible to hit free agency in 2019.

Of course, the Raiders simply could franchise tag him next offseason, but Mack’s camp would argue that now still remains the time to hammer out a new deal, with one tangible year left on his contract. His 36.5 sacks the past three seasons combined are second only to Chandler Jones (40.5) over that span. Mack is in his prime at 27 years old and has never missed a game in his four-year career.

You can see his side of the argument. But if Mack truly is gunning to be the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback, as has been reported, it’s also easy to see where the gap might exist in the minds of the Oakland front office.

Jon Gruden’s new defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, said last week that Mack will have “a lot of catching up to do” upon returning, but that can be chalked up to coachspeak. Mack has stayed away from the team to this point, but pass rushing is a fairly universal language that shouldn’t take long to interpret.

On the one hand, there’s not a wild fear he won’t report to training camp as things stand now. But on the other, the Raiders really can’t afford to have him missing major time if they want to start establishing a good defense.

And the reality is that the Raiders have done deals later than this on the calendar. Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson both received lucrative contracts in late June last year, so the panic meter is far from buzzing yet.

Earl Thomas

Unlike the first two situations, however, there’s tangible fear about what’s going on with Thomas and the Seahawks. He informed the team he won’t be around for Seattle’s mandatory minicamp, so the message might be the same as Jones and Mack, but the tenor is quite different.

The 29-year-old Thomas is entering the final year of a four-year, $40 million contract. He’s currently sixth in average per year among safeties — a full $3 million behind the Chiefs’ Eric Berry atop the position. That’s likely the baseline minimum that Thomas would accept for a new deal.

Would the Seahawks, who are entering something of a transition period, be willing to go that high? So far, they have not, and their contract history suggests that this would be the time they normally would get such a deal done for a star player. With 25 career interceptions and three first-team All-Pro team mentions to his name, Thomas is the definition of a star and a difference maker.

So why no deal yet? As much as the Seahawks might need Thomas’ stability and talent given how much uncertainty there is with the team — especially on defense — they have not yet shown a willingness to go that deep financially. The team has refused to call their current state as a rebuild, more like a reset, but you can’t argue that a slew of veteran talent has been allowed to walk this offseason, with Kam Chancellor unlikely to receive injury clearance to play again.

The Seahawks have to regret signing Chancellor to the deal they did, one that pays him $12 million per and has handcuffed them a bit. But is it enough to fuel a Thomas trade, maybe to the Dallas Cowboys? That just feels extreme.

But it’s also time to wonder whether Thomas actually plans to report to the team in July a happy training camper or whether he might not be in their long term plans anymore.

Aaron Donald

Donald’s drama extends back to last year when he stayed away all offseason and reported one day prior to the season opener against the Colts, which he missed. The Rams blew them out that day without Donald, and all he did was return to the field the following week and embark on a Defensive Player of the Year season for the NFC West champions. No big deal, really.

Really, though, nothing has tangibly changed with his contract status. Donald is slated to play this season on the fifth-year tender of $6.89 million, which ranks him 19th among defensive tackles currently. He’s also currently the 11th-highest paid Rams player — and third among the team’s defensive linemen, behind Michael Brockers and Ndamukong Suh.

The Rams’ strategy this offseason has been clear: Add elite talent with a shot to win a Super Bowl now. Hard to argue with that approach in the big picture. But at the risk of angering Donald? It’s a significant risk. Their talent gathering alone isn’t going to appease him as he seeks — like Mack — a position-shattering deal.

Unfortunately for Donald, the system benefits the team right now. The league’s CBA requires that players accrue four seasons in order to hit unrestricted free agency. And even though Donald played in 14 games last season, he’s technically only on the books right now for three years accrued because he missed the reporting deadline last year with his prior holdout.

That’s why a holdout this year really does him little additional good in the big picture. If he did so again, Donald would be a restricted free agent next year instead. It’s true, the Rams likely would have to franchise him in 2019 either way because there will be a dozen or more other teams lined up and ready to pay the first-round pick price to sign him to a lucrative contract offer sheet if the Rams don’t protect themselves.

The likely date Donald reports? Mark August 7 on your calendars. That’s 30 days prior to the Rams’ first regular-season game, so Donald showing up on that day would trigger the fourth year and allow him a little more leeway toward moving on next season, even with the team able to franchise him. That really would be the best-case scenario from the team’s perspective.

But if Donald is prepared to dig in his heels and miss multiple regular-season games, he has that option. The fines could really add up, if the Rams choose to enact them, but they also know that even with Suh and a slew of other talented defenders on the roster, there’s no one who can replace what Donald gives them.

The Rams would have to be highly creative to get something done now that appeases him. They have only $4.259 million in salary-cap space for this year left, and they’ve committed more than $122 million in salary to 61 players in 2019. That part can be worked around easily enough, but the Rams also have the contracts of Suh, LaMarcus Joyner (this year’s franchise tag recipient), Brandin Cooks and Rodger Saffold set to expire next offseason as well.

Beyond that, they’re also creeping up on the day when they’ll have to figure out how to get extensions done with Todd Gurley and Jared Goff eventually. This one is getting a bit sticky for sure.

Le’Veon Bell

There’s little mystery here. This drama also has been a multi-year affair, and yet the feeling remains that Bell will show up at some point — just not likely for training camp. He skipped it last year, arriving a few hours prior to the Sept. 1 deadline, and it’s looking like history will repeat itself.

Bell hasn’t yet signed the franchise tag offer for 2018 of $14.5 million, and it appears he’s using that as the baseline offer per year for any long-term contract talks. The deadline for an extension to happen is July 16, and few are holding their breaths with the anticipation of that occurring. His teammates and coaches would love to have Bell there for camp, but they also know the reality that it’s not feeling too likely.

The Steelers already have gone deep for him, committing nearly $27 million last season and this year to Bell. So it stands to reason they might consider a multi-year deal in that range over the next few seasons. But if Bell is seeking practical guarantees in, say, the $40 million range (or north of there), the Steelers certainly would continue balking.

After all, recent first-round picks Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott currently pace the RB position at $27.1 million and $24.5 million, respectively, and they’re a few years younger and with far less mileage on their bodies. There isn’t a back in the NFL whose contract exceeds $41.25 million in total value (Devonta Freeman), so the Steelers certainly know what the league parameters at the position are, short of David Johnson signing a new contract that changes the marketplace.

The Steelers love Bell for his elite production, but as he gets closer to 2,000 NFL touches — he’s at 1,541 over 62 career games — they have to determine how deep they’re willing to go for him beyond this season. Last year’s holdout, veiled retirement mentions and 18 missed games (because of injuries and suspensions), along with big money committed to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown the next few seasons, are all extenuating circumstances that cloud the entire picture.

But as it stands, it’s clear that Bell likely isn’t showing up before he truly feels he has to at this point.

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