Chris Johnson is holding out. You all know this. Like many things in the NFL, though, situations aren’t properly understood by the fans or explained by the media. I was curious as to the particulars of the situation, so I dug a little bit and wanted to explain to all of you why Johnson is holding out and why he is absolutely correct.
Unbiased disclaimer: I don’t like players holding out. You signed a deal, you play out the contract. So I come into this with a negative perspective towards CJ and his current situation. A few things in this particular case swing me the other way though:
Chris Johnson has it. A lot of it. Right now Vegas has the Titans 2011 win total over/under at 6.5. If CJ is in camp right now and ready to go week 1, that number is 7.5. If Vegas knew he wasn’t playing a game all season, and you have a Matt Hasselbeck – Javon Ringer backfield, that number could easily be 4.5. You could make a very nice argument that Johnson is more important to his team than any other running back in the league. The Titans will be undoubtedly worse without him on the field.
Johnson has played three years. He has played in 47 of 48 games over those three years. His average numbers per season look like this: 300 carries, 1,533 yards, 11 TDs, 2 fumbles lost. These numbers are very similar to Adrian Peterson, who would be the only other RB over the last three years you could argue was as good or better than CJ. His numbers over his four years in the league look like this: 296 carries, 1,446 yards, 13 TDs, 3.25 fumbles lost. Looks about even to me. Well here are their respective contracts:
Very similar contracts for the first three years, as per the difference in draft position and the SOP for 1st-round rookie RBs. Chris Johnson considers himself the best running back in the league – and most people can’t really disagree. He is 1 or 2 on everyone’s list. He has produced the last three years – better than everyone except maybe AP. He deserves the money, and he is young enough to warrant the investment as all signs point to this continuing.
If Johnson gets badly hurt or hits a wall at any point in the next two years – not uncommon for running backs in this league – and he gets cut, he only gets the remainder of that guaranteed 7 million. Which would mean over 3 or 4 years, he only gets 7 million dollars and his career could possibly be over. NFL contracts are not guaranteed – we all know this. Johnson realized this last year and held out for a short amount of time. He was appeased by the team with an extra $2.5 million. He produced again, and again was not given more money.
The average length of an NFL player’s career is 3.3 years. Running Backs have the shortest average career length at 2.57 years. Considering Johnson in an elite running back, his liability is extreme every time he touches the field. With 300 carries a year, the propensity for injury is massive. Johnson isn’t Natrone Means either, he is a smaller back, he is the focus of every defense the Titans play, and he has been relatively injury-free so far in his career.
His contract still has two years left, so even if he shut his mouth and played out his current deal, performed on this same level without injury, the Titans could simply franchise him in 2013, and he wouldn’t be able to go out and get his big deal (he would still get the average of the top 5 RBs in the league, so not terrible). He would be stuck for three years.
4. Relative Compensation
We’ve been comparing AP and CJ and come up with basically the same production. AP is the highest paid RB in the league and makes 10.72 million this year while CJ makes 800K. If AP is number 1, where is CJ you ask? How about 31st. He is the 31st highest paid RB in the league. This puts him behind franchise-caliber All-Pro backs like Atlanta’s Ovie Mughelli (3 mil), Detroit’s Maurice Morris (1.625 mil), San Fran’s Moran Norris (1.5 mil), and Buffalo’s Corey McIntyre (950K). I’m not sure who those last two guys are either.
He is the 241st highest paid player in the NFL. On NFL Network’s player-voted rankings of the Top 100 players in the league that was recently done, CJ came in at 13th. He isn’t even in the top 13 paid players on his own team – he is 19th. Cortland Finnegan walked out of Titans’ camp this year and he makes 3.29 mil this year. If you want to see the 18 players ahead of CJ on the Titans’ roster, check this out. The highest paid Titan is Safety Chris Hope who makes around 6 million a year.
The numbers I could find using rotoworld.com and musiccitymiracles.com put the Titans with about 9 million in cap room this year. Clearly plenty of room to give CJ some more money.
Chris Johnson is 100% correct in holding out. He is vastly under-appreciated, vastly under-paid, and seemingly stuck without a big pay-day for three more years. That would make him a 28-year-old running back with six years on his odometer. (I would bring up Shaun Alexander getting his big contract at that point in his career and then somehow having a negative total of broken tackles for the remainder of the deal but it gives me Nam-like flashbacks). His career could easily be over at that point, even if he was not significantly injured during that time.
He needs to get paid now, and he is too valuable to the Titans for them to be playing these shenanigans with him for the second year in a row. So as this situation continues – if the Titans don’t give him what he deserves – remember that CJ is right and they are wrong.
The defense rests.
(For future reference: There are a few running backs who, with another productive year, will be in a similar situation next year. Matt Forte is already grumbling this year – he is only scheduled to make 555K this season. Other young, top-tier backs who are going to be vastly underpaid as per their expected production this year: Rashard Mendenhall (612.5K), Ray Rice (555K), Arian Foster (525K), and Shady McCoy (480K). It will be interesting how each of these teams and players handle these situations as they become more tense.)