Star NFL players are beginning to take after their NBA counterparts by taking more control of their careers. And 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman believes it’s ultimately good for the sport.
“I think it’s good for the game just because it gives something different,” Sherman said. “It’s not as predictable.”
Fans of certain teams might disagree. The Raiders recently lost stars Khalil Mack and Antonio Brown. The New York Giants traded superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Cleveland Browns for a package including two players and two draft picks. The Jaguars might be in a similar boat with All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who reportedly requested a trade away from Jacksonville this week.
The physical nature of the NFL means stars can have a short shelf life, and players are understanding the best ways to maximize their careers can be leveraging their value between the lines to put themselves in situations to succeed. In Beckham’s case, he went from a rebuilding situation under new general manager Dave Gettleman to a team in win-now mode in Cleveland.
Mack held out from the Raiders before last season because the team didn’t want to give him a lucrative contract. He eventually landed with the Chicago Bears via trade, who handed him a six-year, $141 million contract before making a playoff run. The Raiders finished 4-12.
The blueprint may have been created by LeBron James in 2010, when he took his talents to the Miami Heat while creating a super team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that won two championships. Then Kevin Durant went to the 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2016 and also won two titles.
This summer, Kawhi Leonard won the NBA Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors, then signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, making his agreement contingent on the team trading for Paul George. And Durant left behind Golden State’s dynasty to start something new with the Brooklyn Nets, where he teamed up with good friend Kyrie Irving.
It certainly isn’t as easy for stars to team up in the NFL. But NFL players might be in the early stages of a paradigm change that allows them similar agency in dictating their futures.
“I think you see that in a big way,” Sherman said. “And I’m sure the owners don’t like that. I don’t think they ever like to give up any power or for players to effect their power. But I think it’s good for the game. I think it’s good for the game to have some differences.”
The changing philosophy from players could be a significant factor in the upcoming negotiations with owners over the new collective bargaining agreement. The current deal expires after the 2020 season, and players are assuredly looking for more guaranteed dollars in their contracts and better benefits, such as health care provided by the league after their playing careers.
Sherman is a vice present of the NFL Players Association and San Francisco’s team representative. He’s been outspoken for years about subjects such as player safety and rule changes favoring the offense.
The “player empowerment era,” as it’s called in the NBA, could lead to a watered down version in pro football, which could force owners to to make changes with the way they handle their own stars to ensure they don’t want to leave for greener pastures.
“I do think that’s another benefit that’s going to come from this,” said Sherman, “is that I think these organizations are going to treat these players with a lot more respect and admiration, and just appreciation.”
Stars, of course, are the most valuable commodity in pro football, perhaps aside from a once-in-a-generation coach like Bill Belichick, for example. Yet they’re becoming harder and harder to identify in the NFL Draft, which is far from an exact science.
Sherman is an obvious example. He’s one of the best cornerbacks of his generation and a likely Hall of Famer, yet he was a fifth-round draft pick. Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft choice before winning six Super Bowls. And every team has seen its share of first-round flameouts.
It’s all led to teams realizing they might need to trade for a star rather than trying to find one in the draft – and the take the time needed to develop him.
“I think people are starting to realize that first-round picks aren’t as valuable as they used to be,” Sherman said. “It’s what can you do for me now, rather than waiting and developing a player who may develop, may not develop. You’re getting players who you know what they’re going to be, you know what they are. And you’re exchanging the first-round draft capital, which you don’t know what it could be.”
Despite all that, Sherman doesn’t believe the 49ers need to trade any of their valuable draft capital to improve the 49ers, who are off to their first 2-0 start since they went to the Super Bowl following the 2012 season. Fans have clamored for the team to trade for Ramsey even while third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon is playing the best football of his career.
“I think we’re good with what we have,” he said. “We leave it to the front office, I don’t make those decisions. Obviously they feel comfortable with what we had going into the season. That’s why they cut the guys they cut and kept the guys they kept. (I’m) really confident in our guys at every position.”