NFL Offseason: Assessing Contract Holdouts and Hold-Ins from June Minicamp

NFL Offseason: Assessing Contract Holdouts and Hold-Ins from June Minicamp

This article is part of our NFL Reactions series.

As of Thursday, every NFL team had completed its offseason program, including the first mandatory practices of the year at June minicamp. In some cases, a player's lack of participation in minicamp provided hints about an ongoing contract situation that might (or might not) remain a problem later this summer.

The players can be divided into three categories. The first group are true holdouts, guys that didn't show up at all and can be fined. The second group are so-called 'hold-ins', the players that reported to minicamp but chose not to participate fully (or at all) despite being healthy. The third group is Tee Higgins, who can't practice or be fined until he signs his franchise tag.

Below I'll take a look at what's going on with each player and try to figure out what might happen later this summer. History suggests most of these guys will suit up Week 1 for their current team, but there's definitely some added risk of the unknown when a player is unhappy with his contract and threatening to miss practices or even games. 

The list below is WR-heavy, whereas QBs seeking new contracts (Jordan Love, Tua Tagovailoa and Dak Prescott) have opted against holdouts. The lack of RBs on the list is good news, as those tend to be the trickiest situations due to the heightened injury risk and reduced compensation relative to other positions.

Holdouts

This one seems contentious, with both Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel

As of Thursday, every NFL team had completed its offseason program, including the first mandatory practices of the year at June minicamp. In some cases, a player's lack of participation in minicamp provided hints about an ongoing contract situation that might (or might not) remain a problem later this summer.

The players can be divided into three categories. The first group are true holdouts, guys that didn't show up at all and can be fined. The second group are so-called 'hold-ins', the players that reported to minicamp but chose not to participate fully (or at all) despite being healthy. The third group is Tee Higgins, who can't practice or be fined until he signs his franchise tag.

Below I'll take a look at what's going on with each player and try to figure out what might happen later this summer. History suggests most of these guys will suit up Week 1 for their current team, but there's definitely some added risk of the unknown when a player is unhappy with his contract and threatening to miss practices or even games. 

The list below is WR-heavy, whereas QBs seeking new contracts (Jordan Love, Tua Tagovailoa and Dak Prescott) have opted against holdouts. The lack of RBs on the list is good news, as those tend to be the trickiest situations due to the heightened injury risk and reduced compensation relative to other positions.

Holdouts

This one seems contentious, with both Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel being frequent subjects of trade rumors and the 49ers drafting WR Ricky Pearsall in the first round (they also gave No. 3 receiver Jauan Jennings a two-year, $15.4 million contract). GM John Lynch made comments after the draft suggesting he'll keep both of his star wide receivers — at least for this year — but Aiyuk clearly isn't happy about the possibility of playing out 2024 on a fifth-year option for $14.12 million.

Recent WR contracts around the league suggest Aiyuk probably wants twice that much in terms of average annual value, not to mention the security of a multi-year deal with guarantees through at least 2025-26. There's still some chance of a trade here, and also some chance that Aiyuk's spring holdout stretches into August (or even September). That said, if I had to guess, I'd say the 49ers end up giving Aiyuk the bag this summer and then end up trading Samuel next offseason. Stay tuned.

Concern level: Medium

         

Cooper hasn't said anything to the media or requested a trade, but his absence from June minicamp in a contract year makes a clear statement. He can be fined slightly more than $100,000, which isn't that big of a deal for someone in the final season of a five-year, $100 million contract. Cooper is due $20 million this season, which means he's unlikely to actually skip games (each absence would cost him $1.18 million) and would receive at least $24 million on a franchise tag next offseason. He'll probably get an extension within the next month or two anyway and avoid all that.

Concern level: Low

              

Some have pointed to Justin Jefferson's recent deal as a problem, suggesting Lamb will expect an equivalent contract and the Cowboys won't be willing to pay it. Ultimately, the two sides will probably settle on something that allows Lamb to be right around Jefferson's average annual value but without as strong of guarantees and protections. Players of Lamb's caliber and with his level of importance to the team pretty much always get their bag before things get really sticky with a holdout. His absence from OTAs and minicamp doesn't especially worry me.

Concern level: Minimal

              

Hold-ins

Kamara reported Tuesday for the start of minicamp but then didn't practice Thursday, with multiple reports suggesting his absence was related to contract dissatisfaction. I'm a bit surprised by this one, as I've been working on an article about summer trade/cut candidates and mentioned Kamara as a dark horse to be released for cap reasons, i.e., he may be overplaying his hand here.

He's due $10.7 million this season and then $25 million in the final year of his contract, with none of the money being guaranteed. The latter number means Kamara will be released next offseason if he doesn't accept a pay cut or work out an extension, so it makes sense that he wants to get ahead of things and maybe lock in some kind of security. The problem is that his $10.7 million in non-guaranteed compensation might be more than he'd get on the open market if the Saints simply released him. 

The team doesn't have much incentive to guarantee money unless Kamara agrees to reduce his base salary for 2024 and/or 2025. I think the two parties will figure something out, but there's some chance things get ugly, in which case Kendre Miller's fantasy value would soar. 

Concern level: Medium

      

I'm not sure Sutton is technically considered a hold-in, but he revealed a couple of interesting things Tuesday after showing up for minicamp. First, he said he had offseason ankle surgery, which he also gave as the reason for his absence throughout voluntary OTAs. But then he confirmed he's unhappy with his contract and even hinted at considering a holdout for training camp... so maybe his absence from OTAs wasn't only about the injury?

Sutton is due $13.6 million this season and $14 million next year — not unreasonably low salaries relative to his production — but he has only $2 million in guarantees remaining (all this season). His recent comments suggest he wants an extension, not just an adjustment to make more of the money guaranteed. While he said he wants to retire as a Bronco and thinks things will get figured out, Sutton used the word 'stalemate' to describe recent negotiations. The good news? His ankle doesn't seem to be a problem. A trade seems more likely than a prolonged holdout.

Concern level: Medium-to-Low

             

WR Ja'Marr Chase

Chase falls in the same category as Lamb, with the massive contract being a matter of 'when' not 'if. The difference is that Chase is under contract for two more years, whereas Lamb and Jefferson are/were entering the fifth and final year of their rookie deals. Chase doesn't have much leverage — as evidenced by his limited presence at minicamp rather than a true holdout — and the Bengals probably won't play hardball with him anyway. One way or another, he'll be on the field Week 1.

Concern level: Minimal

          

Unsigned Franchise Tag

Editor's note: Higgins signed his franchise tender Saturday after this article was published.

This might be the hardest gap to bridge, as Higgins likely believes he's a No. 1-caliber WR who could take on a 150-target workload and thrive if he were Batman instead of Robin. He might be right, or not. Either way, the Bengals aren't going to pay him accordingly. Higgins arguably would be more valuable to another team — like one lacking a true WR1 — and his trade request back in March is a hint that he may be thinking the same way.

While there was never any report of Higgins walking back the trade request, he acknowledged in mid-April that he'd likely end up playing for the Bengals this year. Cincinnati brass rightly isn't keen on trading one of its best players during a win-now window, even if Higgins' departure ultimately is unavoidable. 

The Le'Veon Bell cautionary tale, among other reasons, makes it unlikely that Higgins would leave his tag unsigned and miss the entire season. However, I wouldn't be totally shocked if he went the Melvin Gordon route (2019) and waited until September or October to sign. It's not great that there have been reports of the Bengals not even making serious extension offers since 2023. 

For what it's worth, there's no truth to the idea that the Bengals "can't afford" to sign all three of Chase, Higgins and Joe Burrow to long-term deals. They absolutely can; it just entails trade-offs that would limit their free-agent shopping in future seasons and maybe their ability to retain some of their third/fourth-tier players. Moving on from Higgins isn't a bad business decision, but it's also not the necessity that some claim it to be.

Concern level: Medium-to-High

       

Note: There's been some chatter about Steelers RB Najee Harris not participating in minicamp (though he was present). I didn't include him here because his participation in earlier voluntary practices suggests he's not seriously considering a holdout. He's probably just dealing with a minor injury, or maybe he had some kind of agreement with the team to limit his exposure while they discuss an extension (less likely). 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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