Le’Veon Bell may come to regret betting on himself.
The Pittsburgh Steelers star turned down a deal worth a reported $12 million per year – with $30 million over the first two seasons and $42 million over three – opting instead to play under the franchise tag in 2017.
Bell will now earn $12.1 million fully guaranteed this year, before hitting unrestricted free agency again next spring. Or, more likely, he’ll receive the franchise tag again next year (at a price of $14.5 million) and again be faced with a scenario in which he can only negotiate with the Steelers.
“I’m not in a rush to sign for something I’m not valued at, if I feel I’m worth more than what they are offering me,” said Bell – who once rapped that he wanted $15 million per season – of his decision to turn down the offer.
“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell said. “We do everything. We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”
Bell’s not wrong about the sorry state of the running back market, and he’s probably not wrong about the importance of the position, but he might be misguided about how to best rehabilitate the wage scale for himself and his peers.
As OverTheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald noted, with Bell already due to earn $12.1 million this year he’ll have to make $18 million next season to justify turning down the Steelers’ offer and its $30 million over the first two campaigns.
It’s next to impossible to imagine any running back making $18 million per year when the current high-water mark for annual earnings at the position (excluding Bell’s $12.1-million tag) is LeSean McCoy’s $8 million.
The Steelers’ offer likely didn’t include guaranteed money after Year 1 – because the Steelers never guarantee money in later years – but that shouldn’t have impacted Bell’s decision because any scenario that would lead Pittsburgh to cut him after 2017 would also surely prevent him from earning close to $18 million on the open market.
The Steelers have already made Bell the NFL’s highest-paid runner this season by millions. Their offer of $42 million over three years would have significantly outdistanced recent deals signed by McCoy ($27.3 million over the first three years) and Doug Martin ($21.8 million over three years). In effect, it would have reset the running back market and accomplished Bell’s stated goal.
Clearly, there’s more at play here.
What that is remains unclear. It could be that Bell truly believes he’s worth quarterback (or elite-defender) money and won’t sign for less. If that’s the case, he’ll be sorely disappointed down the road.
More likely, the Steelers and Bell clashed over language regarding guarantees or suspensions. Bell has endured more than one major knee injury and understandably might demand guaranteed money beyond the first year of his deal, despite the Steelers’ policy. Bell also began the previous two seasons under multi-game suspensions for drug-related violations and remains a suspension risk – something the Steelers surely sought protection against.
Even in the event of another major injury or suspension, the Steelers are likely to apply the franchise tag to Bell again next season at the manageable price of $14.5 million.
And, even if Bell shatters records this season, $14.5 million will serve as the baseline for negotiations next summer. It’s hard – maybe impossible – to see a scenario where the Steelers offer Bell significantly more money in a year’s time than they just did. And it’s easy to imagine them offering much less – like, for instance, if Bell were to be hurt or suspended again.
All of this makes Bell’s decision to reject the Steelers’ offer puzzling. At best, he’ll probably find himself with nearly the same offer next summer.
Bell deserves to be the NFL’s highest-paid running back, and he almost certainly will be for the next two years. But he may have to “settle” for being highest paid by a lot, not highest paid by a mile.
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