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The 5 O’Clock Club: Le’veon Bell and the running back market

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

NFL: Pro Bowl-AFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I heard Michael Irvin, on Sunday, talk about the idea that Le’veon Bell was trying to re-set the running back market and get them (other running backs) paid, in addition to getting paid himself.

It seems that he failed on both counts.

By sitting out the entire year, what he’s managed to show is that the Steelers are just as good without him. They have been able to plug & play James Conner, who has statistically outperformed Lev Bell! (at least in terms of 9 games of play projected to 16-game totals)

Le’veon Bell, by sitting out the season while the Steelers have compiled a record of 6-2-1 without him, has made it harder for other running backs to make the case that they should be paid, not easier.

My argument isn’t that Le’veon Bell isn’t a great player, deserving of big money. Nor do I feel he ‘betrayed’ his former teammates, coaches or fans by refusing to sign the offered contract. I’m okay with his right to do that.

I just think he made a mistake that will end up costing him money.

And again, I don’t say this because I think GMs or other football executives will be offended by his holdout — I simply think that Bell, who is a player with a number of red flags tied to him in the form of games missed due to suspension early in his career — had one thing to sell: his “specialness”. Bell has been seen as a special back ever since he entered the league — a patient runner with a burst who could punish tacklers and is capable of lining up as a wide receiver and running routes. He’s a multi-dimensional weapon, and Pittsburgh’s success helped underline how special he was.

Bell has been seen as having a unique skill set for some time — and he’s long been considered the best back in the league.

But Bell may have overplayed his hand in 2018.

First of all, James Conner — a 3rd round pick out of Pitt — has stepped right in and done everything Bell used to do, but he’s been more productive doing it. And the Steelers have been winning. The question has to be asked: if the Steelers can win without him, and Conner can replace him so easily, how special can Bell really be?

Beyond that, several other players have appeared on the scene recently with much the same skill set that we used to attribute to Bell alone.

David Johnson, Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara all leap to mind, but other running backs like Saquon Barkley, who hasn’t yet turned his team into a winner, are showing that Le’veon Bell doesn’t have a monopoly on his particular flexible skill set.

Bell is just 26 years old, so he doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his body, but he has just made it clear that he considers $14m per year an insulting offer, meaning that any team that wants his services needs to pony up substantially more. How much more? I’m not sure we know the answer to that question. Bell has said in the past that he wants to be paid for the production he provides as both a runner and a receiver. Odell Beckham Junior is the highest paid receiver in the league at $18m, so, presumeably, that would set the floor on what Bell wants to get paid. My best guess is that he’s expecting to get paid in the $18-20m per year range.

He’ll certainly be looking for multiple years, and some level of guarantee beyond the first year, since the franchise tag seems to have been unacceptable to Bell and his agent, not only due to the price tag, but also its lack of long-term security.

Is anyone realistically going to pay this kind of money to Le’veon Bell?

First of all, Bell has only ever played 16 games in a season once — and that was in 2014, though he did play 15 games last year. He has been suspended by the NFL twice, and carries a higher than average risk of a lengthy suspension if he faces another incident. Bell was suspended by the league for 2 games in the 2015 season following an arrest for DUI and marijuana possession. He was suspended for another three games in 2016 for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. While he managed to get through the 2017 season incident-free, history tells us that another violation of NFL drug policy is likely to bring a suspension of 10 games minimum, and possibly a year. How many GMs want to take the risk of building a team around a player who, in addition to the normal risk of injury, has the secondary risk of punitive suspension hanging over his head?

Secondly, Bell will be 27 years old next season — not particularly old. But if he’s looking for a multi-year deal giving him in the neighborhood of $20m per season, he may be a year too late for that. Sure, a team may give him a contract that averages out the right way, but how many teams are going to give $20m per year guarantees to a 29-year-old back?

He’s not likely to get a 3-year guaranteed deal a la Kirk Cousins, and — if the money’s not guaranteed — then what did he gain by refusing to sign the tender, really?

Todd Gurley is making $14m per year; David Johnson, $13m.

After that, there’s a big drop in the market.

Devonta Freeman is the number 3 back at $8.2m and it goes down from there.

James Conner is making $754,000 in 2018.

It’s hard for me to figure out the math that Le’veon Bell was doing in his head when he decided to pass on $855,000 per week in 2018.

I mean, I get the whole “risk of injury” thing, but as others have pointed out, he could have bought an insurance policy for waaay less than $14m.

Bell probably has 3 years of top-tier earning capacity at a maximum. To recover the $14m loss, he’ll need to get about $4.7m extra per season above and beyond what he would have gotten if he’d played. And that’s just to break even!

If he wants to make any substantial gain as a result of his refusal to sign the franchise tag, he’ll probably need to pull down at least $20m per year for the next three seasons, and I just don’t see anyone paying that kind of money... not with any meaningful guarantees that improve his position relative to the franchise tag.

It won’t surprise me to hear talk emerge of collusion, or of Bell being “blackballed” if he doesn’t get a contract offer above $14m in March. “NFL owners and executives don’t like it when a player stands up for his rights,” people will say.

Some people will lap it up, but Le’veon Bell’s problem will be of his own making — and it won’t be due to some kind of ‘retaliation’ because he didn’t sign the franchise tender... it’ll be because Bell and his agent will have misunderstood his value, incorrectly projected what would happen in Pittsburgh without him, and miscalculated what he needs to get paid to make it all worthwhile.

This offseason, Bell will be a year older than he was in the 2018 offseason. He’ll be a year away from football. He has a history of suspensions, and is now identifiably a player who is difficult to negotiate with. He has a strong skillset, but he plays the NFL position with the most erodable skills, and the team he left high and dry didn’t skip a beat without him. Bell was replaced by a 3rd round draft pick who currently has 771 rushing yards, 387 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns in 9 games. He’s rushed for over a 100 yards 5 different times this season, and has at least one touchdown in 7 of 9 games. Meanwhile, Bell has been a black hole for 11 weeks.

I just don’t see where the desire to pay Le’veon Bell the money he wants in 2019 and beyond is going to come from.

Of course, it only takes one guy to pull the trigger on a contract, but it’ll be surprising to see a GM open the checkbook up to pay Bell over $18m per year. There are a couple of teams in the NFL with the kind of cap room needed to write that check, but I’m not sure if those teams that are a running back away from a championship. Bell could find himself looking more like Dez Bryant and less like Kirk Cousins this offseason.

You could probably make an argument for a team like the Colts, Jets, or Raiders, but there are reasons why those teams are sitting on cap space and potetentially in need of a player like Le’veon Bell.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Le’veon Bell, in my opinion, made a mistake as far as his personal financial best-interests. I agree with Grant Paulsen; Bell will never recover the money he lost this season.

He may have refused to sign the tender for reasons that were non-financial, but Michael Irvin’s assertion this past Sunday that Bell is somehow “resetting” the running back market seems to be a mere fantasy.

Todd Gurley set the running back market with his last contract. Lev Bell will spend this offseason learning the reality of what an NFL running back is worth.

Poll

Will Le’veon Bell be on a playoff team in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    yes
    (166 votes)
  • 84%
    no
    (905 votes)
1071 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What kind of contract will Le’veon Bell sign as a free agent in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 92%
    $15-17m per season
    (978 votes)
  • 6%
    $18-20m per season
    (70 votes)
  • 0%
    more than $20m per season
    (10 votes)
1058 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Is Le’veon Bell successfully ‘resetting’ the market for running backs, as suggested by Michael Irvin?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    yes
    (58 votes)
  • 94%
    no
    (1033 votes)
1091 votes total Vote Now

Poll

If you could only have one — which of the following would you choose to have on the Redskins next year?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    Derrius Guice in the 2nd year of his 2nd-round contact
    (811 votes)
  • 19%
    Adrian Peterson on a vet-minimum deal
    (227 votes)
  • 8%
    Le’veon Bell on a 3 or 4 year deal worth $19m per year
    (102 votes)
1140 votes total Vote Now