The Nat Coombs Column: NFL player power is a battle against the odds

Clark on Steelers trading for Fitzpatrick: 'I hate it' (1:17)

Ryan Clark is not a fan of the Steelers trading their 2020 first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick. (1:17)

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The odds are stacked against anyone playing in the NFL. Making it to the big league is an extraordinary achievement, and even if you are one of the chosen few to make the cut, for most it's a fleeting moment. The average playing career is just over three years.

It's a ruthless business, predicated on the principle that most of the players, even some of the very best, are ultimately expendable.

For all the parity engendered by the salary cap and the draft system, it's the players that suffer most. You grind harder than anyone for years on a rookie contract, and rather than get rewarded with a big new deal, chances are the team will move on if there's a more economical option, if cap management necessitates it.

And each year, a constellation of the very best pro-ready athletes with less wear and tear and miles on the clock, hungry to prove and cost effective, are parachuted in bulk, all across America to challenge for your spot.

To add insult to injury -- indeed the majority of players go through much of the season carrying a knock, but play through the pain out of fear of losing their spot -- the contracts you sign don't work like contracts in other sports. In the NFL, players only receive the money that's guaranteed within their deal. Any other numbers within are illusory. Teams can cut a player before they have to pay out, and invariably often do for that very reason without so much as a 'thank you', let alone any kind of fiscal compensation. This is in stark contrast to say the NBA, where not only are the contracts invariably bigger, they're fully guaranteed.

So it's tough enough on the field, but alongside that intense physicality NFL players have to navigate a cut-throat, mercenary existence away from the hash marks.

One minute, you're holding up your new team shirt with a big grin on your face. The next, you're making up the numbers in preseason training for a side you know is most likely going to cut you, but keeps you around because it needs the bodies to enhance training for the players that will play.

Even the superstars are seemingly affected. The franchise tag rule -- which enables a team to lock in an elite player on a one-year-only deal -- is routinely used to dodge shelling out three or four times as much money. Teams are typically run by razor sharp billionaires, who are all about the business and hold a vice like grip over the players.

But is there any indication this may change, that the power struggle isn't all one way and some players are starting to do what they typically reserve for on the field: hit back and hit hard?

One of the most effective pieces of leverage, for star players anyway, is to hold out -- to refuse to participate in team activity indefinitely until a suitable deal is tabled. Historically, holdouts have often proved beneficial for a player. Take Emmett Smith or Darrelle Revis, for example.

But there are cautionary examples, too, such as John Riggins, who didn't get what he wanted from the Redskins, missed a year and came back, cap in hand, with the disruption having a tangible effect on his productivity.

New York Jets running back Le'Veon Bell is hoping his year out will have different repercussions. He sat out all of the 2018 season, because neither he nor Pittsburgh blinked in a contract dispute, and in the end, he took a deal with the Jets that paid him less money than the offer from the Steelers that he didn't think was enough.

From the outside looking in, Bell may have come out of this as the loser, but sharper eyes, like those of Mike Carlson -- writer, broadcaster and regular on my ESPN podcast -- thinks there's more to the situation than at first meets the eye.

"Big difference with the Le'Veon Bell situation is that he had been hurt a few times in recent seasons, so the year off made more sense for him than it does for most players. He certainly looks fresher now," Carlson says.

While Bell may have taken a short-term loss, his holdout may end up enabling him to make more in the long run. As a lead running back taking lots of reps, the danger of early burnout is particularly acute.

Another elite running back, Zeke Elliot, adopted a similar position to Bell's with his team, the Dallas Cowboys, and the two sides eventually settled days before the start of the season. Elliot got the deal he wanted.

The impact of this will be interesting when his teammates Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper look to re-up their contracts in the near future. Their agents will point to the Elliot deal and demand a similar approach to their valuation, respective to their positions.

Elliot could act as a catalyst for increased player power.

Both Elliot and Prescott represent examples of a new challenge for NFL owners in controlling the dialogue with players. The most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between players and the league/owners significantly reduced the amount of money paid out in rookie contracts. While this was fairer to the veterans, who had become dismayed with the imbalance -- a young player without a single minute of NFL action to his name could earn a huge amount, thus affecting the rest of the money to go around the other 52 players on the roster -- it meant that rookies who vault into elite status early on in their multi-year contract become unsettled.

"Players on rookie contracts are not going to going to be paid superstar money, even if they're at that level," Carlson says.

Many players force the issue for a contract re-up, or else, midway through a deal.

"[Historically] you didn't see many players demanding a trade," Carlson says. "When they did, the teams simply said, 'forget it.'

"Players now have enough money to be able to do it [hold out]."

But for every Elliot, there is a Melvin Gordon. Adopting a similar stance, his holdout with the LA Chargers is still in motion. While he's sat on the sidelines, new players have emerged in his position, filling the void, weakening his bargaining potential.

Other players take a stance against their team for different reasons. Jalen Ramsay, the star cornerback of the Jacksonville Jaguars, this week insisted his team trade him, but not because of a contract dispute, rather a disagreement with the coaching staff and a lack of belief the team he plays for can contend for the Super Bowl.

Similarly, second-year safety Minkah Fitzpatrick forced his way out of Miami by declaring he'd had enough and wanted to move, and the Dolphins dealt him to the Steelers.

"I think what you're seeing now is what I call the Basketball Mentality -- players who don't refuse to play, but say they're not happy and maybe that they won't be motivated to play at their top level," Carlson says.

The Fitzpatrick deal had a number of Dolphins fans scratching their heads -- not for the first time this season -- but it seems the front office made the call because the player had overwhelmingly projected that he just didn't want to be there. Similar disruption and perceived imbalance caused by Antonio Brown in Oakland forced the Raiders to release their newly acquired star player.

"The effect of bad chemistry multiplies beyond the player himself," Carlson suggests. "One player can poison a team."

Brown used his social media channels to send messages to the Raiders about wanting out, and this week Jets safety Jamal Adams has been accused of similar tactics (albeit marginally more subtle than Brown's), having unfollowed the Jets' Instagram account from his personal one.

The significance of players developing as brands with lucrative sponsorship deals, and the potential for them to talk directly to fans via their social channels, only strengthens their hands.

Indeed, seeing more players adopting a bullish position with teams -- for example: Brown, Ramsey and co. -- is likely, but it's still realistically the luxury of the chosen few.

Even if control is wrestled back in favour of players from time to time, teams still run the table in most instances, and as long as supply outweighs demand in the next-man-up environment of the NFL, that's not going to change in a hurry.