Le’Veon Bell is making a big bet on himself. That kind of thing isn’t all that uncommon in the NFL, where contracts are not guaranteed, but Bell’s gamble is an attempt to transcend his position from a financial standpoint. The odds that he’ll succeed appear to be stacked against him.
Bell and the Steelers could not come to terms on a long-term contract by Monday’s deadline, leaving Bell with two options for the upcoming season. He can sign his franchise tender and earn a fully guaranteed salary of $12.1 million for 2017, or he can sit out. (The league sets the tag numbers by position.) Multiple reports suggest Bell will skip a portion of training camp—which he is free to do without consequence—but that he’ll eventually sign the tender sometime before the start of the regular season.
Tom Pelissero of NFL Network confirmed the contours of the contract Bell turned down:
The Steelers’ offer reflects the NFL’s general attitude toward the running back position, which is increasingly seen as replaceable in an era in which offenses are built around throwing the football. LeSean McCoy’s current deal pays him roughly $8 million in average annual value (AAV), the highest for any running back in the league. This year’s free-agent market topped out with the $5 million in AAV Latavius Murray got from the Vikings (only $3.4 million of which was fully guaranteed at signing, per overthecap.com). The Steelers were willing to go well above that in the first two or even three years of Bell’s deal, but they were not willing to guarantee anything after Year 1.
If that were the end of it, Bell would simply be the latest player to seek the security of a longer guarantee. But as he told ESPN earlier this week, his true aim is to be paid for what he brings to the table as a rusher and a receiver:
“I feel I should be valued as a player, not so much my position,” Bell told ESPN in an interview Monday, shortly after the 4 p.m. ET franchise-tag deadline passed.
“Hopefully down the line I can get valued at, not as much a guy who gets the ball 30 carries and that’s it,” he said.
“I make plays in the passing game, blocking, doing everything. I’m arguably the top running back in the NFL and the No. 2 receiver on the Steelers, even though I play running back. Their career receiving total vs. mine, they don’t have more yards than me.”
Bell indeed has a distinct skill set; he’s a patient and explosive runner, and twice in his four seasons he has finished second on the Steelers in pass receptions. In 2016, he finished third in the league in yards from scrimmage (1,884) and led the league in yards after catch (685). The Steelers also aren’t afraid to line him up in the slot or even out wide, making him, along with the Cardinals’ David Johnson, an offensive avatar of the matchup-based positionless football that’s becoming more and more the norm around the league. [Update: Per Pro Football Focus and Pro-Football Reference, Bell played 13.5 percent of his snaps in the slot or out wide in 2013 and 2014, 9.6 percent in 2015, and 15 percent last season.] But can Bell leverage that to get paid beyond what running backs typically earn? Especially when there’s no precedent for it?
“With no market comparable or recent data points to target, this negotiation has no chance,” former agent and ex-Packers executive Andrew Brandt, now an analyst for The MMQB, told me.
In 2014, Jimmy Graham attempted to transcend his status as a tight end by filing a grievance when the Saints placed the franchise tag on him at the slotted tight end salary of $7.053 million. Graham sought to be paid the tag value then given to wide receivers ($12.132 million), but an arbitrator ultimately ruled against him even though Graham had lined up in the slot or out wide on 67 percent of the snaps he played in 2013.
On the day of the tag deadline, Graham signed a four-year deal worth $10 million in AAV. He was traded to the Seahawks the following offseason.
“He set the tight end market but didn’t get wide receiver money,” former agent Joel Corry, now an analyst for CBS Sports, told me. “Getting out of positional restraints is hard.” All the more so in a league in which management consistently threads the needle to limit player compensation.
Bell will be 26 with five years’ experience by the time he might have a chance to test free agency next year, assuming the Steelers don’t tag him again for $14.52 million. The kind of high productivity that might enhance his value could also work against him.
“There is more risk to running backs than any other position,” Brandt said. “For what other position do we hear the phrase ‘Tread on the tire?’”
Pass rushers, Corry noted, have the best opportunity to cash in, no matter where they line up.
“The best bet is consistently putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks,” Corry said. “Those types of players get paid regardless of position.”