The Le’Veon Bell contract saga, two years and three negotiating cycles in the making, finally concluded just after midnight today. Bell will play for the Jets, for a reported $52.5 million across a max of four years, with a max value of $61 million, and guarantees totaling $35 million. There are a lot of unknown specifics that will trickle out in due time to paint a clearer picture, but there’s already enough of a rough sketch available to indicate Bell did indeed get some—though certainly not all—of what he had hoped by sitting out the 2018 season and forfeiting the $14.5 million he stood to earn on the franchise tag.
Most of the criticism of Bell’s Jets deal tends to focus on the figures mentioned above, which appear to be lower than what he had turned down last summer from the Steelers. But there’s one other figure to consider that significantly changes the way this deal can be contextualized: Per NFL Media’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, Bell will receive $28 million fully guaranteed. [Update (March 14, 3:08 p.m. ET): More precise details are now available. Per NFL Media’s Tom Pelissero, Bell is actually set to receive $25 million fully guaranteed. On March 15, ESPN’s Dan Graziano subsequently put the number at $27 million. That latter figure has likewise been update elsewhere in this story.] This is an important detail. Let’s unpack what it means.
It can be tricky to analyze and compare deals based on incomplete information. The NFL scoop enterprise is notorious for tossing out contract figures that frequently mask or spit-shine a contract’s true value, depending on the sourcing. In a league without fully guaranteed deals, and with a bevy of permissible accounting gimmicks that allow teams to manipulate a hard salary cap that includes no exceptions for players, contracts are rarely what they seem when they’re initially reported. More often than not, the reported details can even be contradictory—especially when it comes to offers, rather than actual agreements. Because contracts are in writing and can be viewed and even passed on to reporters.
This is worth keeping in mind when assessing reports of the Steelers’ final offer to Bell last summer, at the conclusion of the franchise tag’s bargaining window. The numbers most frequently bandied about—five years, $70 million—are completely irrelevant in context, since most of that was not guaranteed, which meant Bell was never likely to see much of it. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Bell stood to collect a guaranteed $33 million “in the first two years,” with $45 million in earnings in the first three. This at least begins to get us somewhere—but it still stops short of revealing the offer’s true value. There’s a semantic difference at work here, but it can be significant.
What Bell sought—and what more and more players are coming to understand they need to seek—was fully guaranteed money. But full guarantees are not the same as injury guarantees: The former is money a player will collect no matter what, while the latter protects the player in the event of a catastrophic injury that keeps him from playing during the year in which the injury guarantee applies. Bouchette’s report of a guaranteed $33 million in the first two years makes no mention of whether that amount is full or for injury—or whether there’s a trigger that vests any guaranteed money into Year 2. Now look at this tweet from NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, from July 2018:
So: The only full guarantees totaled $10 million—or $4.5 million less than Bell stood to make on the franchise tag. This is in keeping with the way the Steelers traditionally draw up their contracts, with the signing bonus as the only full guarantee, and almost always only in the first year. In this context, Bell’s refusal to sign becomes a bit more understandable. But notice that reference to a “rolling guaranteed structure.” This gets us back into murky waters.
A rolling guarantee is a guarantee that vests on a specific date, typically some time around the start of the league year in March, which for 2019 happens to be today, March 13. The contract Todd Gurley signed with the Rams last July, which Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio was first to break down in total, is a perfect example—and not just because Gurley and Bell are comparable players. Gurley’s deal includes $45 million in guarantees, which seems like a lot! But $21.95 million of that ($21 million signing bonus, $950,000 in 2018 base salary) was fully guaranteed at signing. However:
Guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap is the way full guarantees are characterized in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. And based on this, Bell got a pretty sizable full guarantee at signing.
This is where the rolling guarantees enter the picture. Let’s piece together how they definitively add up for Gurley.
- For 2019, Gurley has $5 million in salary guaranteed for injury at signing that becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year, which is this Friday.
- For 2020, Gurley has a roster bonus of $7.5 million payable on the third day of the league year, but guaranteed for injury at signing and fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2019 league year (again, this Friday). Also, Gurley has a 2020 base salary of $5.5 million that’s guaranteed for injury at signing and fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2020 league year.
- For 2021, Gurley has a $5 million roster bonus payable on either the third day of the league year or the day of the first game, depending on whether there’s a work stoppage. That bonus is guaranteed for injury at signing and fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2020 league year.
In sum, Gurley got $45 million in injury guarantees, at signing, that extend until 2021. As of this Friday, Gurley stands to have $34.5 million of the deal fully guaranteed because of the way those full guarantees roll out: $21.95 million at signing, the $5 million in 2019 salary, and the $7.5 million 2020 roster bonus to be paid next March. Had Gurley completely crapped out last year and been cut before Friday, all he would have received was the $21.95 million. If he’s still on the roster by the third day of the 2020 league year, he will have $45 million in full guarantees (the $34.5 million, the $5.5 million in 2020 base salary, the $5 million roster bonus to be paid in 2021). And if Gurley is still with the Rams in 2021, he stands to collect another $4 million in non-guaranteed base salary. The deal becomes much more team-friendly after that. All told, Gurley got a great deal that’s front-loaded with lots of injury protection along with three years’ vesting of full guarantees—no small thing considering he reportedly has arthritis in his knee.
Now let’s go back to the rolling guarantees Bell was reportedly offered by the Steelers. There were no reports of Bell’s offer having been structured in the way Gurley’s is, with $45 million guaranteed for injury at signing, only to vest into full guarantees totaling $33 million by Year 2, and $45 million by Year 3. Absent that information, it’s not possible to know exactly how much protection from risk Bell was offered at signing. (The same goes for the $42 million in the first three years Bell acknowledged having turned down in 2017.) But $27 million in full guarantees at signing is the highest among running backs on a non-rookie contract, trailing only Giants RB Saquon Barkley’s $31.2 million and Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette’s $27.15 million, which both got for being top-five draft picks.
There was another reported 2018 offer for Bell. In October, Florio reported that the Steelers proposed paying him up to $47 million in the first three years, with $20 million in effective guarantees: a $10 million signing bonus, plus a $10 million roster bonus to be paid shortly thereafter. Bell effectively would have collected $20 million simply by signing, considering it was unlikely the Steelers would have cut him sometime between when he signed and whenever that roster bonus came due. The risk for Bell? No full guarantees beyond Year 1. Had his production slipped considerably, the Steelers would have been free to cut him after one season without any consequence. Florio had two other points to emphasize:
The cash flow beyond the initial $20 million still isn’t known, and neither is the amount that would have been guaranteed for injury only.
The duration and structure of the contract beyond 2020 also would be a factor. If Bell had collected $47 million over the first three years, what would he have gotten in 2021 and 2022, if it were a five-term package?
Here’s where it becomes possible to begin to compare the contours of the offer Bell turned down from the Steelers with the one he accepted from the Jets. Bell had played on the franchise tag for $12.1 million in 2017, and he refused to play on a second one for $14.5 million because he would have had zero guarantees beyond that. But to make it worth his while, he would have had to secure a deal that would have paid him at least $33 million in the first two years, or $45-47 million across the first three—the equivalent of the offer he reportedly turned down. Even without knowing the exact parameters of his Jets deal, it’s pretty clear that at four years, $52.5 million, he’s not getting that: There have been no reports of Bell getting a significant portion of that amount front-loaded. There’s also still no ignoring that $27 million in full guarantees, though. It reset the running back market, and it’s money Bell will collect no matter what.
By hitting the open market, with multiple teams bidding on him, as opposed to just the Steelers, Bell thought he could do better in average annual value than the $14-15 million he turned down. He just ran headlong into the harsh reality faced by running backs in today’s NFL, and to a pay scale that continues to limit players’ earning potential based on the positions they play.
Bell is an extraordinary talent capable of carrying the ball and catching it: From 2013 through 2017, he had 1,541 touches, second only to the Bills’ LeSean McCoy (1,571), who had played in 13 more games during that same span. Bell can line up all over the formation, and in most years he was the Steelers’ second-best receiver. As a result, he made a push for positionless compensation, but that’s something NFL teams continue to refuse to do.
Teams viewed Bell as a running back, and they view running backs as replaceable. It’s a vicious cycle. The growth of spread offenses at football’s lower levels has led to a surplus of running backs with dual-threat ability. And in a salary-capped league with a draftee pay scale that locks in up to four years of serious cost control, teams simply find it more efficient to invest in younger backs with less wear on their tires. The production the Steelers received last season from James Conner and Jaylen Samuels—even if neither was anything close to being as efficient as Bell, on a per-play basis—only seemed to reinforce this perception. Gurley’s arthritis—perhaps attributable to his similarly heavy workload—also probably didn’t help Bell’s negotiating position.
Multiple reports indicated there wasn’t a big market for Bell, that at the price point at which he ultimately signed, the Jets were largely bidding against themselves. The Jets entered this offseason with a ton of cap space they’re eventually required to spend, and they badly needed a playmaker to complement their young quarterback, Sam Darnold. They seem to have accomplished that, without getting carried away. Bell had a year off to rest his body, but he also lost out on the $14.5 million he’d have collected on the tag. He took a risk, and while he got less than the Steelers were willing to give him, he at least appears to have gotten some of the security he sought instead.