I get the whole thing about increased pressure to get guaranteed long-term deals for NFL athletes at prime-time positions…But man, when you’re getting paid $14.5 million guaranteed under the franchise tag anyway, and you’re only 26 years old? Sorry, but my Curt Flood “martyr genes” don’t exactly kick in.
Le’Veon Bell’s next season with the Pittsburgh Steelers will almost certainly be his last for them. The Pro Bowl running back and the defending AFC North champions failed to reach an agreement on a new contract by Monday’s deadline, meaning he will play under the franchise tag for a second straight year and hit the open market next spring. Bell tweeted that ‘‘both sides worked extremely hard’’ to try and find common ground but ultimately could not. Bell, 26,is one of the league’s most versatile players and he has long maintained he wants to be paid accordingly. In addition to serving as a workhorse in the backfield — his 321 rushing attempts last season led the NFL — he also caught 85 passes, good for 10th in the league. Bell will make $14.5 million whenever he signs his franchise tender, which likely won’t be until the end of training camp. It’s the path Bell followed last summer after the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him for the first time.
Bell wants to be paid like no back before him, believing himself worthy of the salary of a No. 1 running back and a No. 2 receiver. His intention is to redefine the market for an All-Pro at his position.
Imagine if you will Jay Ajayi or Corey Clement making such a claim to epic guaranteed pay after an amazing double-threat season? Well, one thing which prevents that scenario is Doug Pederson’s insistence on rotating his backs. No one running back is going to dominate reps, or be on the field more than two downs in a row, so it’s a built-in insurance against the possibility of a Le’Veon-style revolt.
With the franchise tag placed upon him for a second consecutive season, Bell and the Steelers couldn’t agree to a deal Monday afternoon when the 4 p.m. deadline to negotiate a long-term contract arrived.
“It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player,” Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The Steelers are smart to do so, even if it ultimately costs them Bell. Running backs/hybrid receivers are simply not that rare anymore.
Bell should have seen the writing on the wall. It’s not just that the Steelers wouldn’t meet his contract demands — he wanted paid on par with WR Antonio Brown’s $17 million annual salary – last year or this year.
Can you imagine an Eagles running back/occasional wide receiver demanding the same or better payday as the leading wide receiver on the team? I guess it’s possible, maybe a good problem to have in the sense of offensive production, but imagine the bad blood resulting from such an ego-driven stance.
While Bell certainly redefined his position as a big back as dangerous whether he lines up in the backfield or split wide, his production isn’t on par with that of Antonio Brown. That’s saying something, given Bell’s career touches (24.9), rushing yards (86.1), receiving yards (42.9) and yards per game (129) through his first five seasons lead all NFL running backs.
Bell ranked third in the NFL with 1,291 rushing yards and tied for third in rushing touchdowns (with nine) last year, but it required 321 carries, and his 655 receiving yards and two touchdowns came on 85 catches.
Translation: you don’t get to put up those kind of numbers unless you are blessed with a helluva good blocking line, and you are your quarterback’s primary check-down option on a three-down basis.
That’s why the Steelers value their No. 1 receiver (Brown) more than their No. 1 running back, but viewing himself as a No. 2 receiver is where Bell miscalculated his worth. Although his 85 catches last season ranked in the NFL’s top 10, his 7.7 yards per catch ranked seventh on the Steelers – and his two receiving touchdowns ranked behind Brown (nine), JuJu Smith-Schuster (seven), Martavis Bryant and Jesse James (three each).
Bell and the Steelers reached an impasse. That’s a problem for both parties, as the Steelers built an offense around Bell’s talents, including a line that maintains blocks for his patient, pick-your-hole style of running.
Bell has benefited from running behind that line, which features three Pro Bowl picks, and playing with future Hall of Famers in Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. But the Steelers passing game has been boosted by Bell’s versatility and the run-pass threat he presents a defense, even if some of those receptions are elements of the run game.
This was no time for the Steelers to be sentimental, not when Bell wanted to break the bank. Bell promised the 2018 season will be his best, but he’s already skipped voluntary OTAs and mandatory minicamp and appears set to miss training camp for the second consecutive season.
And it’s not because the Steelers weren’t willing to pay the player. It’s because Bell wanted to be paid for a position he doesn’t really play.
The Eagles (although I’m sure they would love to have a young player with the versatile talents of Bell) are lucky they don’t have to deal with such a convoluted talent.
The running back talent meter in the NFL is about to be redefined by Penn State alumnus Saquon Barkley anyway. Le’Veon Bell will soon be a distant memory of bowling for bucks.
If the New York Giants are going to give the 2018 Eagles a problem, it is going to be because of Barkley.
As long as he stays healthy, Barkley is going to take nearly all the pressure off a fading Eli Manning.
Barkley is going to crash through the Eagles front line too many times, and when he does he is going to bust through our linebackers and run over our corners and safeties like a bowling ball gone haywire.
And when he does stuff like that, he is going to destroy the Le’Veon Bell case for paying running backs like they are premier wide receivers.
Barkley will be paid the league rookie minimum. Bell will be paid the Franchise Tag maximum begrudgingly. But Barkley will be the most valuable running back in the league.
Bell and his agent Adisa Bakari will be brought back down to earth. Bell will eventually accept a multi-year deal somewhere and it will not be guaranteed. Meanwhile Barkley will out-perform Bell for one-tenth of the money Bell is asking for.
Someone along the way should have informed Bell that if he wanted big-time wide receiver money, maybe he should have not lined up at running back.