With multiple knee injuries and suspension issues in the past, it was encouraging to see Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell perform at such a high level in 2017 without any setbacks. While Bell’s previous red flags will likely follow him for the rest of his football career, he has certainly played at a high enough level to receive a long-term contract extension. Based on performance alone, Le’Veon Bell is a top 5 running back in the NFL, and should be paid as such. But what does that value look like exactly? Bell will be entering uncharted territory when it comes to negotiating top dollar as a premiere NFL running back this offseason.
A quick breakdown of Le’Veon Bell’s 2017 stat sheet provides a clear picture of how productive Bell was this past season and how well he stacked up against his fellow stars.
- 321 rushing attempts (led all running backs).
- 1291 rushing yards (3rd behind Kareem Hunt and Todd Gurley).
- 9 rushing TD’s (tied for 3rd behind Todd Gurley and Mark Ingram).
- 4.0 yards per carry (average). *However, his longest carry was only 27 yards.
- 85 receptions (led all running backs on a team with All Pro WR Antonio Brown and breakout rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster).
- 1,946 total yards from scrimmage (2nd behind Todd Gurley at 2,093).
- Had 3 fumbles (Todd Gurley had 5).
Statistics may not be everything, but it would appear that Bell trailed only Todd Gurley, a legitimate MVP candidate, as the NFL’s top running back in 2017. So shouldn’t Bell receive a long-term contract slightly lower than Gurley’s? If only it were that simple.
Todd Gurley is still playing on his rookie contract as a first round pick back in the 2015 NFL Draft. As a first round pick, Gurley is also eligible for a 5th year option to that contract, which could delay his free agency until after the 2019 NFL Season. Unfortunately for Bell, Gurley’s contract situation isn’t just an outlier.
Most of the top RB’s in the NFL: Ezekiel Elliot, Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard, Alvin Kamara, and David Johnson are all still on their rookie contracts. Several of them will be eligible for 5th year options on their rookie deals as well. Since Le’Veon Bell was a 2nd round pick back in 2013, he wasn’t eligible for a 5th year option on his rookie deal like a 1st round RB selection. Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers had to place a franchise tag on Bell in order to retain him for the 2017 season. That came at a hefty cost of $12.1 million, which is way more than any rookie contract would guarantee. Placing a 2nd franchise tag on Bell for next season would only increase the price, this time to about $14.5 million.
It’s understandable from both sides why a long-term contract simply hasn’t been met. From the Steelers’ perspective, the market for an NFL running back is currently low. Being the team that sets the market’s peak might come at a steep price as well. Why pay Le’Veon +$15 million a year when the next highest paid running backs (Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy) are receiving under $9 million a year?
The franchise tag is a big hit to the organization’s payroll as it is.
On the other hand, Le’Veon Bell turns 26 years old in February. This is his chance to get paid before he approaches closer to the dreaded 30-year-old mark. Teams normally don’t stick with running backs on the wrong side of 30 very long, with few exceptions such as Frank Gore. If Le’Veon wants to be paid like the NFL star he is, the time is now. Whether that happens as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers remains to be seen.
The Steelers could certainly use Bell’s services to bounce back from their recent playoff exit, but it just might not be in the cards. Pittsburgh doesn’t have much wiggle room regarding cap space, with only around $4.5 million in projected space available BEFORE any deal with Bell is made. If Bell decides to protest another franchise tag thrown his way, it could spell an eventual departure from the Steel City. Several teams in the NFL have the cap space and overall need for a player such as Le’Veon Bell. It would not take long for the right suitor to end up paying Bell the money he desires.
As a result, Le’Veon Bell’s new contract extension, if he receives one, would pave the way for all of the young star running backs behind him.