Cowboys should look to Aaron Donald to solve Zack Martin holdout

OXNARD, Calif. — When it comes to holdout Dallas Cowboys star Zack Martin, the company line in the organization has been abundantly clear through the first few days of training camp: Silence is the best form of diplomatic currency.

“My father always told me this — and I think it’s true — you don’t ever talk about another man’s money, and most importantly, don’t talk about your own,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday, when asked about Martin’s holdout. “It’s business and Zack needs to focus on that. We all respect that. We don’t feel any differently about him. He’s always going to be a leader of our football team. This is a business situation.”

For the most part, that’s been the message from ownership down: The Cowboys value Martin as an upper echelon player and love the leadership he represents; this holdout is just part of the NFL’s business process; and any resolution is better left to internal discussions rather than speaking through headlines.

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With that, the team won’t expound publicly on the daily $50,000 fines Martin is racking up by staying away from camp — which according to changes in the collective bargaining agreement, began when he didn’t report to the team on Tuesday. Per the CBA, those fines can’t be rescinded or excused down the line, removing a past practice that often made such penalties toothless during training camp holdouts. Per rules, those fines continue up to Sept. 3, which is the last Sunday of the preseason prior to the Sept. 7 kickoff game. That means Martin could incur as much as $2.05 million in losses prior to the start of the season.

At this stage, it appears unlikely the holdout will stretch that far. But it’s also not clear that the Cowboys have a willingness to rework the 32-year-old Martin’s deal, which still has two years remaining at an average salary of $14 million over the length of the deal. While that contract was once an industry pace-setter, it has fallen considerably behind guard pay in the NFL in recent years, with Martin now the eighth-highest paid player at his position in the NFL and well off the annual pay of Atlanta Falcons guard Chris Lindstrom, whose $20.5 million average is now the benchmark.

Even with his age, it appears some level of adjustment is in order for Martin. But that doesn’t guarantee it will get done, with team owner Jerry Jones pointedly said this week that there is a reliance on the “integrity” of the contract and how it fits into the team’s fine-tuned salary cap.

“Agreements have to really be solid or you couldn’t maintain the process if you reshuffle the deck every time,” Jones said. “That has nothing to do with Zack at all. … You have to at all times in the system we’re in today, especially a seasoned system like we’re in today — we’ve been years now putting contracts in place and under the cap. You’ve got to rely on those contracts. You have to. This isn’t reflecting [on] Zack. It’s just that you’ve got to rely on the integrity of your contract.”

What would an Aaron Donald-influenced deal for Cowboys’ Martin look like?

Zack Martin is now the eighth-highest paid guard in the NFL. In order to get him closer to the top, the Cowboys might want to look at what the Rams did with Aaron Donald. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The question now is whether there’s a resolution that both sides can live with and how that adjustment could unfold. Martin could still report to camp in the coming days and stage a “hold in,” which takes him out of the line of fire for the $50,000 daily fines but also puts him (and the team) into the awkward position of explaining why he’s back in the building but not taking part in practices.

Regardless of whether that’s the next step, the pressing question of how a salary adjustment unfolds remains. One league source familiar with both the Cowboys and Martin suggested the two sides could approach it from a standpoint similar to how the Los Angeles Rams dealt with defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the 2022 offseason. With Donald having vastly outplayed his contract with two years still remaining, the Rams restructured his deal to add significantly more money but also gave a hard pivot point for one extra year that would require what amounted to a balloon payment of $30 million if he were too return to the Rams.

The difference between Donald and Martin? Donald was younger and coming off the team’s Super Bowl win, and also was clearly still the most dominant defensive player in the NFL. Martin, on the other hand, remains one of the very best guards in football, but will also turn 33 in November. When you tap league and agency sources on a resolution, the most sensible compromise from the outside is this: a Donald-esque deal that is adjusted for age realities, which would guarantee Martin somewhere in the realm of $34 to $36 million over the next two seasons, with either a hard out to free agency in 2025 (or retirement), or some kind of one-year balloon payment by Dallas in 2025 if the team wants to retain him an additional year.

As one agency source put it, “It’s about guaranteeing [Martin] more money over the next two years in exchange for not topping the guard market, but also gives him the chance to hit free agency at the end of the deal or retire.”

With the Donald’s precedent in mind, this may ultimately be how team approach elite-level veterans who are approaching the end of their careers. Time will tell if it’s ultimately where Martin and the Cowboys settle — or if they settle amicably at all. Until then, the meter continues running on fines ($150,000 and counting according to the CBA math) and Dallas is left to plug a significant hole in the line as camp rolls forward.

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