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- 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 to 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 that others around the NFL are starting to understand the business and are not willing to show teams the loyalty that has historically been forced onto them.
- Players believe Bell will 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 when he refused 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.
There was a belief 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 on his annual average salary.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers offered Bell a five-year, $70 million contract, with $30 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 $10 million was fully guaranteed as a signing bonus, with $33 million in "rolling guarantees" over the first two years.
The $14.5 million franchise tag would have paid Bell more guaranteed money, as the Steelers could have cut him after 2018, with only $10 million guaranteed. (It’s unclear what the dead money would have been, an incentive for teams not to cut a player, depending on the number).
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesBakari argued that if Bell were playing on the one-year tag, the Steelers could rack up Bell’s touches without repercussion. In 2017, Bell totaled 406 touches. Bell and Bakari feared the Steelers giving Bell another 400, adding more mileage to a player at a position with short lifespans 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 $10 million tomorrow, but if I waited I could make $50 million, you gotta have the discipline and the discernment to kinda make that decision based on those parameters," Morgan said. "The NFL is 100% injury rate. You’ve seen what happened with [Seattle Seahawks safety] Earl Thomas. 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 appreciated what Bell did for the running back position.
Forsett, played nine years in the NFL, retiring in 2017. He amassed 3,890 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career, making $11 million, according to Spotrac. Forsett 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.
Bill Wippert/APNow 27, Bell is in the prime of an NFL player’s career. But for running backs that prime is shorter 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 — 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 defense 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 wanna pay the position."
Bell and his camp may have looked at DeMarco Murray as a cautionary tale. Murray racked up 1,845 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns with the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. He was due for a new contract at the end of the season, and the Cowboys offered him a four-year, $24 million contract. He instead signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for five years, $42 million.
Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire/Getty ImagesIn 2015, Murray had just 702 yards and 6 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 fewer 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 offense, 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 gonna 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 have handled their business — the NBA.
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 criticized 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 fifth-round pick, a haul that, frankly, is not worth as much as Brown. On top of it, he received a three-year, $50 million contract with $30 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 upon 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 … They know their earning power," Amukamara said. "Look at what’s going on with Anthony Davis! 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 wanna 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 — players should take pay cuts or team-friendly contracts, or not let business get in the way of football.
Indeed, Bell’s holdout seemed to impact 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 alike. Some argued 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 gonna 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 players 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 gonna be there helping me out financially if I need it?" Morgan said. "Chances are, we’re not even gonna be in contact with each other."
Morgan said he understands why players would be upset — a player of Bell’s caliber affects winning and losing. Amukamara noted that for quarterbacks and coaches, the win-loss record could be impacted. Even playoff checks are stake.
"You gotta do what’s best for you at the end of the day," Morgan said. "That’s what it’s all about."
Said Amukamara: "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?
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Indeed, 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, $60 million contract, with $45 million guaranteed. Before Gurley, the biggest running back contract in the NFL in terms of total value was the Atlanta Falcons’ DeVonta Freeman with $41 million.
Gurley is three years younger than Bell, a significant number when a player is getting 300 or more touches per year.
There is speculation that Bell could end up with the Oakland Raiders and get a similar deal to his former Steelers teammate in Brown — three years, $50 million, with $30 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 $30 million guaranteed in a three-year, $39 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. He believes 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 gonna give him money. I just hope it’s what he was looking for."
The NFL world will be watching.
- The Antonio Brown trade saga is reaching a boiling point, and both sides are running out of options
- The top NFL free agents of 2019 are dominated by big names
- The 2 biggest QB mysteries in the NFL appear to be solved, and there could be huge implications for the rest of the draft