The Steelers’ veteran players report for training camp today. Running back Le’Veon Bell will not be among them.
The Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell for a second consecutive year, but he has yet to sign his tender, which means we’re likely in for a repeat of last summer, when he remained away from the team until just before the start of the regular season. All signs point to Bell finally hitting the market by becoming an unrestricted free agent next offseason—at age 27, after six years in the league. What kind of deal can he expect?
That question was provided with some kind of baseline yesterday, when running back Todd Gurley and the Rams agreed to an extension with reported maxes of four years and $60 million, with $45 million in guarantees (though not necessarily full guarantees—an important distinction) and a max base (i.e., excluding incentives) of $57.5 million. The metrics that matter, once the exact contract details eventually are made available, will be the extent of those guarantees along with when Gurley is expected to receive payment. [Update: Shortly after this post was published, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio got all the details on Gurley’s deal, and it’s a good one for Gurley: $21.95 million fully guaranteed, with a rolling guarantee that vests to $34.5 million next March and to the full $45 million in March 2020. And most of that has no offsets.]
As soon as the news of Gurley’s deal broke, Bell had one reaction:
Gurley and Bell are similar in terms of production. They’re both 225-pound backs with three-down value who are as useful in the passing game as in the run game. Last year, Gurley was first (2,093) and Bell was second (1,946) in the league in scrimmage yards; Gurley was second (1,305) and Bell was third (1,291) in rushing yards; and Bell was first (406) and Gurley was third (343) in touches.
But there are major differences, too. Gurley only turns 24 next month, has just three seasons under his belt, and (most notably) he got his deal even though he still has two years remaining on his rookie contract. The pact is a win for the Rams, who now have his rights through 2023 (when he’ll be 29), though presumably with guarantees that won’t extend anything close to that far out. By doing the deal now, the Rams locked Gurley in long-term even as they’ll have quarterback Jared Goff on his low-cost rookie deal for another three years. And they’re getting Gurley at a bar-raising price that won’t be affected by likely market-rate deals to come in the years ahead (more on that in a bit). The contract is a win for Gurley in that he now has some genuine security in addition to an average annual value ($14.375 million) that’s close to the $14.544 million Bell is set to make this year on the tag. The only real risks for Gurley would be if his play were to decline after the guarantees run out, or if he were to continue to play at an elite level after the market potentially rises substantially.
The running back market has completely cratered in recent years. The backs drafted since the advent of this CBA in 2011 who even got second contracts all received well below the top of the market: Before Gurley’s deal, Devonta Freeman’s AAV of $8.25 million and guarantees of $18.297 million topped things out at the position (excluding Bell’s tag figure). For context, back in 2012, seven running backs were pulling in $8.5 million or more annually.
The NFL’s evolution into a passing league, the brutal physical toll of playing running back, a wage scale that locks in four years of cost certainty for draft picks (with no chance to bargain forward until after three years), and the efficiency teams have discovered by relying on multiple low-cost backs have all contributed to this devaluation. Then there’s the franchise tag, which the Steelers used twice to keep Bell from hitting free agency in his prime earning years. Bell will have earned $26.7 million across two years on that tag—well above the top of the market, pre-Gurley. But he still hasn’t tested his true market value. The tag closed Bell’s and the Steelers’ negotiating window for a new deal on July 16, and the two sides are now forbidden to bargain further until after the season, all but assuring this will be Bell’s final season in Pittsburgh.
It was reported that Bell turned down five years and $70 million from the Steelers, including $30 million in the first two years, though his agent later denied that. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Steelers’ offer totaled $15 million in AAV, but NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport subsequently reported the Steelers only put roughly $10 million in full guarantees on the table, with up to $45 million in rolling guarantees across the first three years. This is in keeping with what the Steelers typically do with guarantees, citing the notorious “fully funded rule.” Also noted by Schefter, however, was that Bell did not want to have his pay limited by the position he plays, since Bell is nearly as effective as a receiver as he is as a running back.
This indeed would be new ground. 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman stumped for a positionless pay scale last summer. While all of the signposts point toward running backs declining with age and being replaceable on the cheap, the productivity of pass-catching backs like Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott could create a new market dynamic as early as next year, when Bell and Johnson could both be on the market.
And for all the talk about the wear and tear on running backs—an ESPN stat that says their productivity declines precipitously after age 28; the fallouts that hit Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Demarco Murray, Doug Martin, Chris Ivory, and Lamar Miller soon after they signed big deals in recent years—there is what Bucky Brooks wrote last week over at NFL.com:
I’ve changed my thinking when it comes to big-bodied hybrid running backs. Yes, just in the last few months. The more I ponder guys like Bell, Gurley and Johnson, the more convinced I am that they hold unique value.
Brooks’s rationale is based not only on the dual-threat, three-down ability of backs like Gurley, Bell, Johnson, and Elliott, but in the dynamic that changes for them by being used so much as pass catchers: “[H]ybrids should age gracefully as they compile touches on the perimeter on passes that put them in more 1-on-1 situations, instead of the 9-on-7 matchups that exist in the running game.”
Gurley’s deal showed that NFL teams still value elite running backs. But Bell, provided he can stay healthy and still produce, will likely get to prove what that value looks like on the open market.