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The Wisdom of Fading Holdouts in the Modern NFL

 

The concept of NFL players holding out is not novel, but in the modern era of fantasy football, it has taken on additional meaning as consumers of the NFL have increasingly narrowed their interest from teams to individual players.

When a player holds out of training camp, concern about their production for the upcoming season is often dismissed, perhaps using an anecdotal argument such as “remember how the Emmitt Smith situation worked out.

In the summer of 1993, Dallas had just come off its first championship of the post-Tom Landry era, and Smith held out because he was making peanuts compared to Troy Aikman. Jerry Jones refused to budge and the hold out went into the season. After starting 0-2, Jones caved to Smith’s demands, and in Week 3 Smith ended his holdout; at that point, no team had ever won the Super Bowl after starting the season 0-2. Smith went on to win league MVP and his second consecutive rushing title (1,486 yards in 14 games) while leading Dallas to the league’s best record.  He then won Super Bowl MVP as Dallas won its second consecutive title.

Methodology

In the 24 years since that season, there have been several holdouts. A legitimate question is how have subsequent holdouts for top players impacted their fantasy value? This study examines players since the negotiation of the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2011 who held out of training camp and/or mandatory minicamp (or attended minicamp but then publicly threatened to hold out within a week of the start of training camp). It compares their performance to their previous year’s performance during the fantasy football season (NFL weeks 1-16). The data compiled utilize point per reception (PPR) scoring1 based on My Fantasy League data.

Given the financial consequences of training camp holdouts (usually a five-figure fine per day), such holdouts have become rarer, especially since the new CBA introduced a rookie pay scale. There are a total of 11 players who meet the inclusion criteria.

2016 holdouts:

Deandre Hopkins

  • Duration: 1 day
  • Wide receiver (WR), Houston Texans
  • 2015: 315.20 PPR points (21.01 PPG)
  • 2016: 178.10 PPR points (11.87 PPG)
  • Difference in output following hold out: -43.5% (-43.5% in PPG)

Ryan Fitzpatrick

  • Duration: 0 days (organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp only; ended on the first evening of training camp)
  • Quarterback (QB), New York Jets
  • 2015: 302.76 PPR points (20.18 PPG)
  • 2016: 153.00 PPR points (11.77 PPG)
  • Difference in output following hold out: -49.5% (-41.7% in PPG)

2015 holdouts

Dez Bryant

  • Duration: 0 days (OTAs and minicamp only)
  • WR, Dallas Cowboys
  • 2014: 290.10 (19.34 PPG)
  • 2015: 89.10 (9.90 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -69.3% (-48.8% in PPG)

Demaryius Thomas

  • Duration: 0 days (OTAs and minicamp only)
  • WR, Denver Broncos
  • 2014: 321.40 (21.43 PPG)
  • 2015: 248.70 (16.58 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -22.6% (-22.6% in PPG)

2014 holdouts

Jamaal Charles

  • Duration: 0 days (threatened on 7/22, resolved 7/23 – training camp opened 7/24)
  • Running back (RB), Kansas City Chiefs
  • 2013: 382.00 (25.47 PPG)
  • 2014: 248.20 (17.73 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -35.0% (-30.4% in PPG)

Marshawn Lynch

  • Duration: 6 days (ended 7/31)
  • RB, Seattle Seahawks
  • 2013: 260.20 (17.35 PPG)
  • 2014: 287.70 (19.18 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: +10.6% (+10.5% in PPG)

Vernon Davis

  • Duration: 0 days (OTAs and minicamp only)
  • Tight end (TE), San Francisco 49ers
  • 2013: 201.50 (14.39 PPG)
  • 2014: 61.00 (4.69 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -69.7% (-67.4% in PPG)

Andre Johnson

  • Duration: 0 days (OTAs and minicamp only)
  • WR, Houston Texans
  • 2013: 268.80 (17.92 PPG)
  • 2014: 167.20 (11.94 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -37.8% (-33.4% in PPG)

2013 holdouts

None

2012 holdouts

Maurice Jones-Drew

  • Duration: 38 days
  • RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • 2011: 288.70 (19.25 PPG)
  • 2012: 76.00 (12.67 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -73.7% (-34.2% in PPG)

Mike Wallace

  • Duration: 32 days (during this holdout, the Steelers gave the offer they made him to Antonio Brown instead)
  • WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 2011: 242.90 (16.19 PPG)
  • 2012: 196.50 (13.10 PPG)
  • Difference following hold out: -19.1% (-19.1% in PPG)

2011 holdouts

Chris Johnson

  • Duration: 35 days
  • RB, Tennessee Titans
  • 2010: 255.90 (17.06 PPG)
  • 2011: 212.50 (14.17 PPG)
  • Difference following holdout: -17.0% (-16.9 in PPG)

Table 1: Seasonal PPR points related to player holdouts

Player Year of holdout Position Before holdout After holdout Percent difference Redraft ADP (at position)
Chris Johnson 2011 RB 255.9 212.5 -16.96 4 (4)
Maurice Jones-Drew 2012 RB 288.7 76 -73.68 14 (7)
Mike Wallace 2012 WR 242.9 196.5 -19.10 39 (13)
Jamaal Charles 2014 RB 382 248.2 -35.03 2 (2)
Marshawn Lynch 2014 RB 260.2 287.7 10.57 13 (6)
Vernon Davis 2014 TE 201.5 61 -69.73 54 (5)
Andre Johnson 2014 WR 268.8 167.2 -37.80 39 (15)
Dez Bryant 2015 WR 290.1 89.1 -69.29 7 (2)
Demaryius Thomas 2015 WR 321.4 248.7 -22.62 11 (5)
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2016 QB 302.76 153.0 -49.46 195 (27)
Deandre Hopkins 2016 WR 315.2 178.1 -43.50 8 (5)
Average -38.78 35.1 (8.3)
RBs -26.84 8.3 (4.8)
WRs -38.46 20.8 (8)
Le’Veon Bell 2017 RB 319.40 ?? ?? 2 (2)

Table 2: PPR points per game (PPG) related to player holdouts

Player Year of holdout Position Before holdout After holdout Percent difference Redraft ADP (at position)
Chris Johnson 2011 RB 17.06 14.17 -16.94 4 (4)
Maurice Jones-Drew 2012 RB 19.25 12.67 -34.18 14 (7)
Mike Wallace 2012 WR 16.19 13.1 -19.09 39 (13)
Jamaal Charles 2014 RB 25.47 17.73 -30.39 2 (2)
Marshawn Lynch 2014 RB 17.35 19.18 10.55 13 (6)
Vernon Davis 2014 TE 14.39 4.69 -67.41 54 (5)
Andre Johnson 2014 WR 17.92 11.94 -33.37 39 (15)
Dez Bryant 2015 WR 19.34 9.9 -48.81 7 (2)
Demaryius Thomas 2015 WR 21.43 16.58 -22.63 11 (5)
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2016 QB 20.18 11.77 -41.67 195 (27)
Deandre Hopkins 2016 WR 21.01 11.87 -43.50 8 (5)
Average -31.59 35.1 (8.3)
RBs -18.01 8.3 (4.8)
WRs -33.48 20.8 (8)
Le’Veon Bell 2017 RB 26.62 ?? ?? 2 (2)

Conclusions

As we can see, the average player who has held out lost nearly 40 percent of his total production from the previous season and more than 30 percent of his per game production. Only one player actually increased his production after holding out (Lynch in 2014). Of the remaining 10 players, only three (Chris Johnson 2011, Mike Wallace 2012, Demaryius Thomas 2015) experienced production drops of less than 35 percent following their holdouts. The remaining seven players had at least a 35 percent drop in production, with three having more than a 69 percent drop (Jones-Drew 2012, Vernon Davis 2014, Dez Bryant 2015).

An important point to note is that this study is not attempting to explain the reason for the relationship between holdouts and post-holdout production. In fact, it is possible that the holdout has nothing to do with the subsequent production dip. However, as this study shows, players who either are holding out or at risk for holding out are highly likely to produce league-losing seasons. This is particularly relevant given the high ADP necessary to acquire them: a top-5 positional ADP for running backs, and a top-8 positional ADP for wide receivers.

Application

The obvious limitations of this study are its relatively small sample size and retrospective nature. However, the 2017 season provides an excellent prospective test case: Le’Veon Bell, who at the time of this writing (August 22nd) has held out of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp for 26 days. Based on the data from this study, a decline in total season production should not be surprising. In fact, it should be expected.

According to the results of this study, on average, a 38.8 percent total season reduction and a 31.6 percent per game drop in production should be expected. This would result in 2017 production of 195.7 points, and a per-game average of 18.2 points. Based on recent finishes, these numbers would keep Bell among the best backs on a per-game basis (top-5 rate, although not close to No. 1 or No. 2) but drop his season-long finish closer to RB13. If we focus only on the RBs in this study, the 26.8 percent seasonal and 18 percent per-game reductions would result in 233.8 points and 21.8 PPG. The total season numbers would place him solidly in the top-10, while the per-game numbers would place him at RB2.

Given the findings of this study, these numbers could be considered the average of Bell’s 2017 range of outcomes. Is that risk really baked into his current top-2 overall ADP price? I strongly doubt it. Although the general consensus appears to be that Bell’s holdout is not a big deal, the findings from this study indicate that is an unwise position. Buyer beware.

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  1. no penalties for interceptions or fumbles, four points per passing touchdown, six points per rushing/receiving touchdown, one point per 25 yards passing, one point per 10 yards rushing/receiving, no points for kickoff or punt return touchdowns  (back)
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