Tough NFL Labor Market Threatens Orlando Franklin's Career
Larger-Than-Life Canadian Crushed His First NFL Gig
Earning a spot in the NFL is a rare achievement, and Orlando Franklin’s path to pro football was pretty much unheard of. Born in Jamaica, raised in Toronto, Franklin’s family decided to move to Florida so Orlando would have a shot at playing in superior programs in the United States. He landed in Delray Beach, playing with the Atlantic Community High School team alongside a trio of eventual NFL alumni.
The University of Miami picked up on Franklin’s abilities, where he started 39 out of 51 games between 2007 and 2010. His versatility at offensive tackle and guard drew notice from pro scouts, along with his physical gifts. Standing 6’7” tall and weighing in at 330 pounds, he ran a 5.11 40-yard dash, including a 1.76 10-yard split, further increasing his stock before the draft.
He was drafted in the second round by the Denver Broncos in 2011, immediately earning a spot as a starter on the offensive line. Over the first four years of his career, he showed superb durability with the Broncos, starting all but one regular season game. During the 2013-14 playoffs, he helped Denver beat the New England Patriots en route to an appearance at the Super Bowl, protecting Payton Manning and creating running lanes for Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno.
As a rookie, he was part of an o-line which blocked for an average rush of 164.5 yards per game, a franchise record. In 2013 and 2014, Franklin was a pillar on a squad that allowed the fewest sacks. A fantastic start to his career would soon lead to a great reward.
Briefly Living The California Dream
Looking for a quick way to boost the o-line for franchise QB Philip Rivers, the San Diego Chargers decided to invest big money in Orlando Franklin. During the 2015 offseason, he signed a five-year, $36.5 million contract with San Diego, and moved to sunny southern California. Playing in a gorgeous football city and greatly enriched, everything was looking up for Orlando.
Unfortunately, his time in San Diego was marred by a series of lower body injuries, which made it difficult for him to perform at a high level. He started only 10 out of 16 games during his first year with the Chargers, ranking 76th among players at the left guard position. Injuries continued to dog Franklin in 2016. Despite starting the entire season, he still ranked outside the top 60 last year.
The writing on the wall was clear when the Los Angeles Chargers picked a couple of young linemen high in the draft. Instead of paying Franklin, franchise plans appeared to focus on replacing him with a pair of fresh faces who would earn less than Orlando combined. Franklin asked for a trade, but he ended up released from the roster in May 2017, collecting the guaranteed part of his contract: $16.5 million out of a potential $36.5 million.
NFL Labor Market Tough For The Injured
Despite a fantastic start to his career the Broncos and Peyton Manning, Franklin finds himself twisting in the wind. The New Orleans Saints signed Franklin to take care of Drew Brees, but let him go after only five days on the practice squad. Coach Sean Payton stated that Orlando was released because he needed healthy bodies on an o-line decimated by ailments. Franklin’s surgically repaired knee prevented him from staying on the roster.
Given the prevalence of injuries in football, and Orlando’s solid history on the line, the Saints might have valued Franklin as a backup or waited until his knee pain subsided. However, the NFL labor market is extremely fickle, favoring superstars and players with inexpensive contracts.
There’s little room and even less patience for veteran offensive lineman who aren’t eligible for rookie minimum contracts. Unlike the MLB, NHL and NBA, which feature very few non-guaranteed contracts, NFL owners rarely need to concede significant salary guarantees, and have the option of quickly jettisoning players from their teams. In other major pro sports leagues, vets of his caliber would likely be given an entire season to contribute.
The New York Jets were another team interested in Orlando Franklin, so he’ll likely get another shot in the NFL. Nonetheless, his journey outlines the difficulty of forging a long-lasting NFL career, partly due to a labor market that heavily favors franchise owners.
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