Le’Veon Bell is a confident man. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back turned down what appeared to be a lucrative long-term contract to stay in Pittsburgh just before the franchise tag deadline last week, a move that means he’ll play out the one-year tender of $ 12.1 million before facing either a second franchise tag or unrestricted free agency next offseason. Just like Kirk Cousins, Bell is betting on himself to exceed everyone’s expectations.
Unlike Kirk Cousins, Bell isn’t a quarterback. That’s important because quarterbacks always get paid. As Dan Graziano noted on Twitter, Derek Carr broke his right fibula last December and still got one of the biggest contracts in NFL history. Cousins will get his next offseason. Bell turned down an offer that would have made him the highest-paid running back in the league by a comfortable margin. He reportedly did so because he wants to be paid like the combination of a No. 1 running back and a No. 2 wide receiver.
The stakes are a lot higher for Bell’s bet than they are for Cousins. Was it the right call? Should the Steelers have capitulated? And how many players in the league deserve to be paid like two guys? Let’s answer some of the questions surrounding Bell to break down the entire situation.
How good was the deal Bell turned down?
We don’t know the specifics of the offer, but given what we know about how the Steelers structure deals and the current running back market, it looks to be very generous. Reports suggest the Steelers offered Bell a deal averaging more than $ 12 million per season, with $ 30 million due over the first two years and $ 42 million through three seasons.
The Steelers guarantee only the first year of their contracts and weren’t willing to make an exception for wide receiver Antonio Brown, so it’s safe to assume they were intending to do the same with Bell. We don’t have exact figures, but a plausible five-year Bell deal given those baselines could have included a $ 15 million signing bonus and a $ 5 million base salary in Year 1 for $ 20 million in guarantees, with a $ 10 million unguaranteed base salary in Year 2 and a $ 12 million base in Year 3.
The $ 42 million figure is remarkable given the current state of running back contracts. Veteran running backs have signed 12 total deals since the merger that included $ 20 million or more spread over the first three seasons of the contract. Just two of those deals are currently active, with the top one being LeSean McCoy‘s extension with the Bills, which calls for “Shady” to receive $ 27.3 million over its first three years.
Bell’s deal would have flown past that mark. The 25-year-old is well within his right to turn it down, of course, but we can’t make the same comments about Pittsburgh’s offer as we did about Washington’s desultory contract proposal to Cousins. If anything, it’s easier to make a case that the Steelers are offering Bell too much, given the fact that he has missed 20 of Pittsburgh’s 70 regular-season and playoff games since entering the league in 2013 thanks to injuries and suspensions.
Is Bell as productive as a top running back and a second wideout?
I don’t think anybody will argue against the idea that Bell is an upper-echelon running back when healthy. He has averaged 93.7 rushing yards per game over the past three seasons; no other starting back who has been active for all three years over that time frame has topped 82 yards per contest.
As a receiver? It depends on your definition. The 48th most productive wideout in 2016 — the player who would presumably be an average No. 2 wide receiver — was Kenny Stills, who caught 42 passes for 726 yards. Other players in the area include Sterling Shepard, Chris Hogan, DeVante Parker and Ted Ginn Jr. They each have their relative merits, and that’s without offering any utility as a running back.
Bell saw the ball far more frequently than Stills as a receiver, catching 75 passes for 616 receiving yards despite missing four games. He’s a different sort of player than Stills, of course, but a more instructive figure might be targets. Stills generated 726 yards on 81 targets, an average of just under 9 yards per throw. Bell used 94 targets to rack up those 616 yards, an average of just 6.6 yards per pass attempt.
Bell averaged only 8.2 yards per reception and is averaging 8.8 yards per catch over the course of his career, which isn’t really No. 2 wideout stuff. It’s closer to what we might see from a slot receiver like Shepard, who averaged 6.5 yards per attempt and 10.5 yards per catch. Jeremy Kerley and Anquan Boldin are in the same ballpark, while Julian Edelman would be a high-volume version of the same player.
Those guys aren’t making a ton of money on the free market.
Bell’s point also ignores the fact that the vast majority of starting running backs do contribute something as a receiver. Take him out of the equation, and the league’s 20 most frequent rushers averaged 36 catches for 307 receiving yards last season. That’s more than most team’s fourth wideouts, so there’s already some amount of money for receiving ability baked into running back contracts. The difference between Bell and a typical back, when healthy, amounts to something like 40 catches and 360 yards.
It’s fair to say Bell is one of the best receiving backs in football, but if a team’s second wideout was averaging just 8.8 yards per catch, they would try to replace him. If Bell were averaging even 11 or 12 yards per catch, that would be a different story. In terms of production, I’d characterize Bell as a No. 1 running back and a slot receiver.
How much is that worth?
Let’s take it one position at a time. If Bell is the best pure running back in football, he’s worth more than McCoy, whose three-year value is $ 27.3 million. That deal was signed in 2015, and it came with an older McCoy safely ensconced in a long-term contract, which should tell you a lot about how the Bills handled negotiations under former GM Doug Whaley. There are injury concerns, but let’s say Bell’s starting point as a running back is $ 35 million over the first three years of a new deal.
We can’t use that number, though, because the running back figures include some level of receiving ability, and we’re going to calculate Bell’s receiving value separately. Going through the top 20 rushers from 2016 again, you’ll find that 77 percent of their yards from scrimmage come on the ground. Let’s use that figure and round up to suggest that Bell is worth $ 27 million as a runner and blocker without including any money for receiving ability.
Slot receivers don’t make a ton of money on the free market. Shepard is on his rookie deal, but Boldin and Kerley were available for nothing and close to nothing for most of the summer last year. Boldin is again a free agent, while Kerley’s three-year deal in San Francisco averages $ 2.8 million per season. Players such as Jarius Wright and Cole Beasley are in the same neighborhood. Edelman attracted virtually no interest around the league during free agency in 2013 before re-signing with the Patriots on a four-year, $ 17-million pact. His recent extension is for two years and $ 11 million.
The one outlier is Tavon Austin, who took home $ 17 million in guarantees on the four-year, $ 42-million extension he signed with the Rams before last season on a deal that was widely panned at the time and hasn’t looked much better since. Taking an average of the three-year values of those five active veteran contracts (leaving aside Shepard and Boldin) gets us to $ 14.6 million. Combine those two figures and you get to $ 41.6 million over three years, which is right in line with what the Steelers offered Bell, $ 42 million.
Is Bell worth that much?
I’d be skeptical, mostly because of the availability concerns. Bell has struggled with injuries throughout his professional career. He has been suspended twice, most recently for missing multiple drug tests. I think he’s the most talented running back in football when healthy, but it’s hard to say he’s the best pure runner in the game when he hasn’t even come within 350 yards of winning a rushing title during his first four years in the league.
There’s also the possibility that the running back market may have changed permanently. Bell’s $ 12.1 million franchise tag figure isn’t just the largest cap hit for any running back in football; it’s 36.6 percent more than the second-largest cap hit for a back (McCoy at $ 8.875 million) and 74.4 percent more than the third-largest figure (DeMarco Murray at $ 6.95 million). If the Steelers franchise Bell again in 2018, he’ll make $ 14.5 million, which would be way ahead of McCoy and more than double the third-largest cap hit of Ezekiel Elliott. (Devonta Freeman likely will jump into this top three.) At some point, as good as Bell is, even a healthy Bell isn’t worth twice as much as virtually every other back in football. Throw in the availability issues and it’s hard to buy Bell is worth what would amount to a reset of the running back market.
Would somebody pay Bell what he wants in unrestricted free agency?
Former Steelers teammate Ike Taylor suggested Bell would have been willing to sign a deal in the $ 15 million per year range, which is closer to the combination of what a top back and second wideout would make. That would peg the three-year value of Bell’s new deal at $ 45,000,000. The baseline three-year value for running back contracts right now is $ 23,898,377, which would mean that Bell’s deal exceeded the top 20 contracts at the position by 88.3 percent.
That would be the second most outsized contract in the league, jumping ahead of Eric Berry‘s deal with the Chiefs. Berry might stand as a reasonable comparison for Bell, given the safety turned down what would have been a lucrative extension from the Chiefs last offseason before piecing together a career season and earning an unprecedented contract for a safety. If Bell is incredible in 2017 and the Steelers can’t justify paying Bell $ 14.5 million without any long-term security, it’s not out of the question to imagine Bell hitting $ 15 million per year on the open market.
A few possible destinations come to mind. We could start with the 49ers, who gave fullback Kyle Juszczyk a deal that tops the outsized contract chart at 202.4 percent and could have a hole at halfback with Carlos Hyde‘s contract expiring after the season. They’ll have an easy $ 90 million in cap space to work with. The Jets could move on from Matt Forte and will have $ 70 million in cap room; it’s not hard to imagine them justifying the need to grab a star for their famished offense. Washington has an uncertain situation at running back and might want to try and distract their fan base from Cousins’ possible departure. The Bucs will have in excess of $ 50 million in room if they move on from Doug Martin.
The league probably won’t value Bell at $ 15 million per year, but it takes only one dissenting team to prove Bell right. It’s plausible — if not probable — somebody will pay Bell the record deal he wants.
Is anybody else in the league worth two players’ worth of contracts?
It’s tough to say, in part because we don’t have statistics for the vast majority of positions and skills in the way that we do for Bell as a rusher and a receiver. I’d argue that the great quarterbacks in the league are underpaid and worth more because they can make average receivers look like superstar talents, but that’s not really the same sort of debate. Great return men also get paid for two sets of skills, but most dual-threat players who are great at their position and as return men often get moved off of return duties in an attempt to keep them healthy.
One quarterback who stands out is Cam Newton, who has been both an above-average passing quarterback and a wildly effective short-yardage back over the majority of his pro career. The latter isn’t especially valuable on its own — Mike Gillislee has been one of the most efficient power backs in the league over the past two seasons and the Bills didn’t match the two-year, $ 6.4-million offer the Patriots made to sign Gillislee away as a restricted free agent — but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Another notable two-position player is Rob Gronkowski, who’s the most devastating receiving force at the position and a wildly underrated blocker. You probably remember Gronk throwing Sergio Brown out of the club, and he’s a consistent force when healthy as a run-blocker. The Raiders gave former Patriots tight end Lee Smith a three-year, $ 9.4-million deal to serve primarily as a blocker, and it’s totally reasonable to value Gronkowski’s blocking at a similar level.
There are a few players who suit up on both offense and defense, most notably Falcons center Ben Garland and former Giants fullback Nikita Whitlock. The best example of a player who produces like two men, though, is J.J. Watt. The Texans defensive end is such a productive pass-rusher when healthy that he might as well be two edge rushers in one. In 2014, Watt knocked down opposing quarterbacks 51 times; the Ravens were the only team in football to field a pair of pass-rushers who combined to top Watt’s total. In 2015, when Watt racked up 50 hits, just four teams boasted pairs of players with 51 or more knockdowns. Watt’s like two great pass-rushers rolled into one.