Most of the summer everyone was under the assumption that LeVeon Bell would report to the Steelers as he did last year at the start of the season. Apparently that is no longer the case as Bell has indicated that he is doing what he feels is in his best long term interests which is to not play right now. That has of course incurred the ire of some fans and surprisingly his teammates. The question now is what is the end game for Bell?
As a franchise player Bell essentially has no major contract options for this year. The NFL CBA prohibits a franchise player from signing a long term extension after July 15 so he can’t get a big extension. He could negotiate a no franchise tag provision into his contract for next season, but given the cost to tag him next year (in the ballpark of $25 million) that likely isn’t an option for the Steelers anyway. He could look to be released but the market would be uncertain at this time of year and quite frankly the Steelers would have zero reason to do it.
The only real option for him is a raise. Todd Gurley is going to earn $21.95M this season (about $19 million in new money) while Bell would earn $14.5M. Of course one is a one year deal and the other a multiple year extension, but that is realistically the only thing that financially would benefit Bell this year.
Bell forfeits $855,529 for each game his misses this year. That is a significant number. Sitting for a few weeks really accomplishes little. He still is going to have nearly the same risk of injury if he comes back now or week 10 but be out millions of dollars in the process. His value is not going to go up to ever make that money up. Im not sure it would even go down enough to make up that number if he played the year at $14.5 million and got hurt. Bell has been hurt multiple times in his career and has off field concerns all of which are likely going to be factored into any deal he signs.
Bell can sit out through week 10 at which point he either has to sign his deal with the Steelers or sit out for the year. The Steelers still maintain his rights for 2019 but my understanding of the CBA is that sitting out for the year would still kick in the third franchise tag provision meaning he should be free and clear to go out next season and hit free agency.
The whole situation is odd. The Steelers made him, by all accounts, a very reasonable contract offer. It was that offer that essentially seemed to set the stage for the Gurley extension which was more or less double the value of the next highest paid player. The Steelers don’t include guarantees in their contracts but that is par for the course for everyone on their team. They rarely walk away from guys unless their play absolutely falls off a cliff.
Its possible that the Gurley contract gave Bell more confidence in the market next season. In terms of new money Gurley received $33 million in injury guarantees and $37 million in two years. I would guess the Bell assumption might be $40 million in two years which is injury protected as his market value.
Forfeiting his salary this year to get there would drop his three year earnings from $54.5 to $40 million. So for a season long holdout to make sense he would have to be working under the assumption that a year of a heavy workload and/or injury would drop his value in free agency to under $25 million over two years. That is a realistic scenario since other than Gurley no other running back has a $25 million two year new money payout in the NFL. So by putting a hold on his career he may feel he is protecting his market value.
Ive been on the side that Bell made a mistake not taking the Steelers contract offer last year and similarly this year. In large part I say that because the market for running backs has been non-existent. Even if he sits this year and lands the big deal he probably makes out worse than if he just signed that deal in July even if he wanted to hit $3M or $4M more a year. Bell’s movement into free agency is more or less an experiment in the market dynamics for the position. He is far better than the last runner to hit free agency (DeMarco Murray) but that player didn’t find a home that easily. While the Gurley contract may change the overall perception we still haven’t seen David Johnson get a mega extension which is indicative that there is still a market disconnect at the position despite the one big deal.
To me that is really the risk. While protecting his body is not a bad idea if the Gurley-esque contract awaits I still don’t know what odds to put on that. If the deal skews closer to $10 million he would have earned more playing this year and hitting free agency next year even after a big workload.
The players being upset with Bell is surprising as I cant recall anyone being so vocal about a holdout since the days of Tiki Barber on Michael Strahan in the early 2000’s. Maybe this is a unique situation because Bell made it known he was playing, is making a decent salary, and moreso got a good offer from the Steelers that he decided not to take. Its different than the Raiders for example who made no offer to Khalil Mack.
For Bell though he either needs to be all in or just report. The numbers don’t make sense to miss a few weeks and then just come back, unless Im reading the CBA wrong in regards to the third franchise tag. If that’s the case he needs to report for week 11 and play out the last 7 games and playoffs. It’s his right to not sign his contract and try to maintain his value. Whether it works out or not for him we’ll have to wait and see.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.