In some ways, Joey Bosa’s contract holdout with the team that took him third overall this spring is as throwback as he is.
It’s also something we haven’t exactly seen before.
After Josh Garnett inked a deal with the 49ers on July 29, Bosa became the only first-round pick in the 2016 draft class who has yet to sign a contract. Bosa has skipped the first nine San Diego Chargers training camp practices, costing him crucial learning time as he transitions to 3-4 defensive end for the first time.
Holdouts are common in a league with non-guaranteed contracts, but legitimate disputes don’t tend to take place with rookies. That became so with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which severely diminished the wiggle room players have to negotiate before they’ve played in the league.
This makes Bosa in the business world what he is on the field: a throwback. The same guy who draws comparisons to old-age meatheads for his selfless versatility, his preference of weight-room bars over social ones and his overall quiet demeanor is kicking it back to an age where rookies who had yet to play a down in the NFL fought for their big first deal, sometimes viciously.
JaMarcus Russell sat out from the Raiders until after the first game of his 2007 rookie season, a delay that helped unwind his career before it started. Bo Jackson didn’t play a down his 1986 rookie season with the Bucs, which sent him back in the draft to start his career with the Raiders the next year. The next year featured Cornelius Bennett’s 102-day holdout with the Colts that eventually sent him to Buffalo in the three-team Eric Dickerson trade.
Bosa’s standoff is the closest the NFL has seen to those since the new rookie scale, and yet it’s entirely different. Those three holdouts were born of extreme circumstances, with Russell gunning for the largest contract by a rookie in history at the time (a deal he ultimately received at six years and $61 million). Bennett pushed his dispute into the 1987 players strike that killed all league business. Jackson was fighting for football to be only a part-time job on the side of his budding baseball career.
The gap between Bosa and the Chargers is of the most meticulous and technical of sorts. That’s the negotiation climate with today’s CBA.
All first contracts for first-round picks are for four years with a fifth-year team option. They have set total values, which in Bosa’s case is around $25 million, and set signing bonuses, which for Bosa is $17.1 million. The NFL put these measures in place to keep players from holding out on a career that hasn’t started.
Whereas Russell and Jackson fought for more salary, Bosa’s standoff fuels on terms such as signing bonus distribution and off-set language. The Chargers want to defer some of that $17.1 million signing bonus to next season and set protections in the deal to earn back money if they were to cut Bosa before the four years of his contract are up. Bosa’s team appears willing to give in in one area but not both.
“We’re disappointed that he’s not here,” general manager Tom Telesco told reporters at the beginning of training camp. “We just have some small, fundamental differences that haven’t been resolved yet.”
Bosa’s weeks-long dispute with the Chargers has at least remained as timid as the debate terms should suggest. It hasn’t been like Kelly Stouffer’s year-long holdout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987, when he insisted publicly that then-Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill told him, “You will play for me or you will never play in this league,” and Stouffer was eventually traded to the Seahawks.
Bosa’s mother did, however, recently post on Facebook that the family wishes Bosa had “pulled an Eli Manning” and demanded a trade away from the Chargers on draft day. It’s the type of surrounding steam only to be expected from a holdout that doesn’t fit the league’s landscape.
It’s not that a rookie taking some time to examine these terms is brand new. Marcus Mariota did it last year with the off-set language, but he signed with the Titans right before training camp. Such a technical disagreement is built to be a short bridge to cross for an organization and the player. That’s why since the 2011 CBA, no other player had held out longer than Aug. 6, the date when Justin Blackmon agreed to terms with the Jaguars in 2012.
Rookies need training camp to develop full-time football shape and to learn responsibilities that might not have existed at their level of college play, such as route trees, two-gapping end roles and split tight-end spots. Teams need to have them in camp to figure out their place on a roster that’ll trim to just more than half its size in a matter of weeks. The integration is crucial because many top prospects fail to transition from college to the NFL even with time, and it’s a process the league selected careful language to try to ease.
Bosa is rewriting that standard, serving as a throwback and a pioneer all at the same time. It’s still early enough and the dispute has been private enough that neither side is reaching for the alarms, but they’re entering a territory the NFL doesn’t have case examples to show how to navigate.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.