- NFL running back Le’Veon Bell made the radical move of sitting out the 2018 season to preserve his body before hitting free agency this offseason.
- Amid a contract dispute, Bell was worried the Pittsburgh Steelers would hurt his value by giving him more touches, thus adding more wear and tear and risking injury before becoming a free agent.
- Several NFL players who spoke with Business Insider were supportive of Bell, saying players need to take a stand and do what’s right for themselves in the long term.
- The players also said others around the NFL were starting to understand the business and were less willing to show teams the loyalty that has historically been forced on them.
- Players said they thought Bell would get a big contract, but how big could determine whether more players follow in Bell’s footsteps.
NFL free agency will bring the long-awaited conclusion to Le’Veon Bell’s bold strategy.
Bell sat out the 2018 NFL season after refusing to sign the one-year franchise tag for a second straight season. He and the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to agree on a long-term contract.
Some thought Bell might report midway through the season to collect a portion of his salary while still cutting his overall workload in half, but he ultimately sat out the entire season.
The merits of Bell’s decision are not yet known, but NFL players have his back.
“I loved it. I thought it was a game-changer,” Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “We’ve never really seen this in the NFL.”
“I think it was an intelligent, well-thought-out decision,” said Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan. “I don’t think it was a decision out of impulse or emotion. I think it was well thought-out. I think that he had a good group of people around him advising him. They had the long term in mind as opposed to the short term.”
The rift between Bell and the Steelers was multifaceted. Bell felt he should be paid like a top running back and a top receiver; that reportedly raised the floor of what he wanted for his annual average salary.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers offered Bell a five-year, $US70 million contract, with $US30 million guaranteed over two years. The deal, at the time, would have made Bell the highest-paid running back in the league.
Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, disputed the initial figures. The Steelers have historically not guaranteed money beyond the first year of the contract.
Rapoport later reported that $US10 million was fully guaranteed as a signing bonus, with $US33 million in “rolling” guarantees over the first two years.
The $US14.5 million franchise tag would have paid Bell more guaranteed money, as the Steelers could have cut him after 2018, with only $US10 million guaranteed. (It’s unclear what the dead money, an incentive for teams not to cut a player, would have been, depending on the number.)
Bakari argued that if Bell were playing on the one-year tag, the Steelers could rack up Bell’s touches – 406 in 2017 – without repercussion. Bell and Bakari feared that the Steelers would give Bell another 400, adding more mileage to a player at a position with a short lifespan in the NFL.
Bakari had told reporters that Bell would report to camp later on and sign the franchise tender. He never did.
They decided to wait out the season, sending Bell to the open market more rested and preserved, ready to cash in on a career payday that would pay him through his prime, with more guarantees.
“If I had a chance to make $US10 million tomorrow but if I waited I could make $US50 million, you’ve got to have the discipline and the discernment to kind of make that decision based on those parameters,” Morgan said.
“The NFL is 100% injury rate. You’ve seen what happened with Earl Thomas,” Morgan said, referring to the Seattle Seahawks safety who broke his leg while in contract negotiations. “That could have easily happened to Le’Veon, and he could have been coming off of a bad injury, signing a one-year deal in this free-agency year.”
A positional problem
Justin Forsett said he appreciated what Bell did for the position of running back.
Forsett, who played nine years in the NFL and retired in 2017, amassed 3,890 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career, making $US11 million, according to Spotrac. He said he was glad to see Bell stick up for his real value.
“Being a running back and seeing most guys cave in when it comes to contract negotiations – most players, just in general – I was impressed that he stuck with his guns,” Forsett said. “He bet on himself.”
Bell’s decision was calculated, but it is indeed a bet.
Now 27, Bell is in the prime of an NFL player’s career. But that prime is shorter for running backs than other positions.
Running back is a physically demanding position. When players lose their pop, teams are quick to move on.
There is a belief in the NFL that teams don’t need to sign or draft the top running backs because the position might be plug-and-play: Add any player with speed, strength, vision, and a good offensive line, and they can succeed.
Forsett disputed the reputation the position is getting.
“The position is devalued two times throughout the year: One is during the draft, and the other is during free agency,” Forsett said. “So any other time of the year, you’re talking about having a strong run game, having a strong defence in order to win championships and have a chance at winning a Super Bowl.
“So it’s still a position that’s needed and required to be successful, but for whatever reason, it’s a position that teams and GMs and owners, they don’t want to pay the position.”
Bell and his camp may have looked at DeMarco Murray as a cautionary tale. Murray, who racked up 1,845 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns with the Dallas Cowboys in 2014, was due for a new contract at the end of the season, and the Cowboys offered him four years and $US24 million. He instead signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for five years and $US42 million.
In 2015, Murray had 702 yards and six touchdowns on 3.6 yards per rush.
Forsett noted that Murray had a 1,000-yard, Pro Bowl season in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans.
The next year, however, Murray had less than 700 yards on 3.6 yards per carry. He retired before the 2018 season.
“Being 30 at the running back position, it’s a different 30 than somebody on the defensive line or a linebacker. It’s just different,” Morgan said. “Because they’re carrying the ball a lot, especially in [Bell’s] case, he’s accounting for a large percentage of a team’s offence, so he’s taking a lot of wear and tear on his body.
“With every year, there’s a new crop of guys. He becomes more and more dispensable the longer he is in the league. So he has to strike while the iron is hot. You don’t know what the market is going to be in a year or two from now. Especially given that he’s not getting younger.”
A new era of player empowerment
NFL players have closely watched how the players in the most player-friendly league, the NBA, have handled their business.
It can be seen in the case of Antonio Brown.
Brown was not happy with how things were going with the Steelers. He also wanted more money.
Brown essentially forced his way out of Pittsburgh. He criticised Ben Roethlisberger and the team culture. He said the only teams that should call him were the ones that would pay him. He limited the trade market with the threat of not reporting wherever he was sent.
On Sunday, he was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a third-round and a fifth-round pick – a haul that, frankly, is not worth as much as Brown. On top of it, he received a three-year, $US50 million contract with $US30 million guaranteed from the Raiders.
Though some in the NFL world disagreed with Brown’s tactics, he got what he wanted. Brown exerted his force on the Steelers, not unlike NBA players who have forced trades with the threat of free agency and becoming a distraction if they are not dealt.
“I feel like the NBA got it right so much earlier than us,” Amukamara said, adding that players “know their earning power.”
“Look at what’s going on with Anthony Davis!” he said. “The fact that a player can … ask for a trade and ask for out, I never heard of that.
“I’m not putting shame in anybody’s game. You want to take care of your career. You know how much your earning power is. You know how fast your window is closing. Guys are just starting to see that and take advantage of it.”
Amukamara and Morgan both said that football’s culture forces a team-first mentality on players – that they should take pay cuts or team-friendly contracts, or not let business get in the way of football.
Indeed, Bell’s holdout seemed to affect the Steelers. Players called it a distraction. When Bell officially did not report, players raided his locker.
Bell also received criticism from analysts and fans. Some argued that he was unprofessional and that he should have thought of his teammates. Some noted he was also turning down guaranteed money, with no certainty he would ever make it back.
“It seems like they had a whole lot of other issues going on in that Steelers locker room this year that they had to overcome,” Forsett said.
“I think guys are understanding more and more the business of the NFL, and they’re not falling into the trap of team loyalty,” Morgan said. “Because that is essentially – what it is is a trap. They try to paint the picture of being loyal to a team, signing a team-friendly deal, do-it-for-your-teammates type of thing. Like I said earlier, there’s no loyalty. So whenever your contract situation becomes disadvantageous for a team, they’re going to do what’s best for them.”
“Le’Veon gets it,” Amukamara said, “The teams are going to do what’s in the best interest for them. The Steelers are going to do what’s in the best interest for the Steelers.”
He added: “I think a lot of players are just taking it upon themselves. ‘Yes, I love this team. Yes, I love the fans, and I love this game of football. But at the end of the day, the person who has my best interests at heart is myself.'”
All three said teammates should be understanding of other players’ business decisions.
“At the end of the day, when I’m done playing football in five years, are you going to be there helping me out financially if I need it?” Morgan said. “Chances are we’re not even going to be in contact with each other.”
Morgan said he understood why players would be upset – a player of Bell’s calibre affects winning and losing. Amukamara said that for quarterbacks and coaches, the win-loss record could be affected. Even playoff checks are stake.
“You’ve got to do what’s best for you at the end of the day,” Morgan said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Amukamara added: “I would say guys are just staying woke. They really just understand the situations and what’s at stake.”
Will Bell’s holdout pay off?
Other players are rooting for Bell to get his payday.
But how will that payday look?
Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley may have set a new standard when he signed a four-year, $US60 million contract, with $US45 million guaranteed. Before Gurley, the biggest running back contract in the NFL in terms of total value was the Atlanta Falcons’ DeVonta Freeman’s $US41 million.
Gurley is three years younger than Bell, a significant number when a player is getting at least 300 touches per year.
There is speculation that Bell could end up with the Oakland Raiders and get a deal similar to his former Steelers teammate in Brown: three years, $US50 million, with $US30 million guaranteed.
On the surface, it seems like a realistic deal. It would take Bell to 30 years old – historically a falling-off point for running backs – and guarantee him the second-most money among running backs in the NFL. (The Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson also got $US30 million guaranteed in a three-year, $US39 million extension.)
Would such a deal be a win for Bell? It’s unclear.
How much Bell gets in free agency should be a significant point of interest in the NFL. If his gamble pays off, will other players follow suit?
“I think there will be more situations like this,” Morgan said, adding that he thinks Bell will get what he’s looking for in free agency.
“Somebody had to go out there and really stand up for the position, so to speak,” Forsett said. “I’m glad that he was confident and took a chance on himself. I’m hoping that he does get his payday, and I’m sure somebody’s going to give him money. I just hope it’s what he was looking for.”
The NFL world will be watching.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.