August 16, 2011
Perhaps you thought progress was made in the Chris Johnson contract situation last week, when Tennessee Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said, "We're willing to make him the highest-paid running back in the history of the NFL."
That certainly felt like a positive step.
But Reinfeldt's declaration wasn't accompanied by an actual offer, so it didn't represent a meaningful leap forward in negotiations. It was essentially a public relations maneuver, and not unwise. The team didn't really concede anything, as it it's perfectly clear that Johnson deserves historic money, befitting his status as an elite young talent.
This is a 25-year-old back who's just a year removed from an all-time campaign. Johnson has gained 5.0 yards per carry over his three seasons, he's scored double-digit TDs each year, and he's already totaled more than 5,600 scrimmage yards. He'll get paid, assuming he remains healthy.
Given the nature of player contracts in the NFL, it's tough to find fault with Johnson's stance (though plenty of you will, no doubt). Johnson is trying to negotiate a deal that will, in all likelihood, pay him most of the money that he'll ever make, and he's trying to do it while at his athletic peak. He's the heart of an offense that's clearly in transition — no Vince Young(notes), no Jeff Fisher, new offensive coordinator — and if this staredown continues into the regular season, Plan B for the Titans in Javon Ringer(notes). Nice enough handcuff, Ringer, but he isn't close to Johnson's tier as a runner.
Also, CJ2K might be the only player on the Titans with legit drawing power. That is to say, many of us would gladly pay the typical NFL ticket price to watch him play; we might not be so eager to drop $76.47 to watch Ringer carry the football 20 times. So, again: Johnson will get paid.
On Monday, the Tennessean's Jim Wyatt offered this helpful (non) update on the standoff, in light of Reinfeldt's comments:
Nothing has changed.
The two sides remain in a stalemate because the Titans still refuse to make an offer and Johnson has dug in with his stance that he won't show up until he gets one.
So it could take paying Johnson as one of the game's "elite" players — not just the top running back — to get him to camp. Some would argue he deserves to be in that category, while others disagree. It's an interesting debate.
Right now, the two sides aren't even at a starting point.
This whole thing is remarkably similar to Steven Jackson's holdout in '08. Back then, S-Jax was the consensus No. 3 fantasy RB, he was only a year removed from one of the all-time scrimmage yards seasons (2,334 in '06), he was the unquestioned centerpiece of an otherwise uninteresting offense, and he was missing important camp time under new OC Al Saunders. Jackson ultimately ended his holdout on August 20, with a deal agreed to in principle. He signed the next day, getting $44.8 million over six years, $20.5 guaranteed.
Johnson is obviously looking for more — perhaps substantially more. Recent speculation suggests that he could be seeking a Charles Johnson(notes)-level deal ($76M/6Y, $32M guaranteed), in recognition of the fact that he's a playmaker of the highest order. He's not necessarily looking for elite quarterback money, but it's close.
So you can understand why both sides in this thing are circling each other cautiously. Johnson blew off the reporting deadline to earn an accrued year toward free agency, so he's all-in here — and he's tied to the Titans, for better or worse.
In recent fantasy drafts, Johnson continues to hold the No. 3 overall position, although he's been selected as late as No. 12 in at least one mock over at MDC. I'd take him top-five if we were drafting today, without hesitation. Let's recall that the Titans only need to extend a serious offer in order to satisfy Johnson's primary condition for reporting. Tough to believe they won't eventually take that step, thereby applying pressure. They don't seem to be of a mind to trade CJ. I'll be surprised if we don't get a Jackson-in-'08 resolution here. Or maybe this thing drags into September, Darrelle Revis(notes)-style. To me, the absolute worst-case scenario here would be Emmitt Smith in '93, when the league's most valuable fantasy asset missed two weeks (yet still finished with 1,484 rushing yards). The Emmitt outcome doesn't actually seem likely, but I suppose we have to allow for the possibility that Tennessee will bungle this thing, massively and unforgivably.
In any case, I'm still drafting CJ2K near the top. I'm supposed to caution you to chase Ringer if you draft Johnson, but, realistically, it's going to take an extraordinary back to excel for this team. CJ is definitely that guy; Ringer likely is not.
If you're terrified of this ongoing contract stalemate, feel free to spread some fear in comments. A little panic is always welcome in the fantasy market...
Photos via US Presswire