Looking at Le’Veon Bell’s Contract Offer and the Plight of the Running Back

Yesterday when Le’Veon Bell’s agent made reference to “paying the position rather than the player” it reminded me on an article I wrote way back when about the devaluing of the position, comparing the way teams were approaching their contracts to the way they approached kickers. While things haven’t gotten that bad, its still shocking to see how far things have fallen. Running back is the least valued of the standard positions (its fallen behind right tackle) and only ranks above the special team players. Bell is certainly a special player but how much can you devote to a special talent when the rest of the NFL is paid so much less? 

Bell reportedly turned down a five year, $70 million contract offer from the Steelers. The offer sounded no better than last year’s five year, $60 million offer (both offers seemed to contain nearly identical two year cash payouts) so its no surprise he turned it down. That said $14 million per year would be the second largest contract ever given to a runner (Adrian Peterson signed for around $14.2M in 2011) and be about $6 million higher than the next closest player, Devonta Freeman of the Falcons.

As far as “position buster” contracts that is a legit offer from the Steelers. The offer represents a 70% premium over Freeman and nearly 87% premium over the fifth highest paid player at the position. That is a similar gap between Peterson and everyone else back in his day and gives some logic behind the offer.

From Bell’s perspective though I can also understand the logic in assuming you should be paid more especially by the franchise that you have played with all your career. When you look around the NFL at the wide receivers and see Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins making between $15 and $16 million a year it’s hard to say you are not worth that. Bell is far more important to the Steelers success than either Landry or Watkins will likely be to the Browns and Chiefs. With teammate Antonio Brown earning $17 million per season there could be some logic to saying that they should be considered 1 and 1A to the team and thus be paid the same.

It sets up an interesting free agent period next year. Running backs simply have not cashed in during free agency or any other negotiation in ages. 2012 was really the end of the big money contract signings and its been downhill ever since. This was never more obvious than in 2015 DeMarco Murray hit free agency. Murray was 27 years old and coming off a monstrous season in which he ran for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns. It should have been big bucks, but was anything but. Dallas didn’t even franchise tag him and let him go in free agency. While many players seemingly came to terms in the outside contact window, Murray didn’t seem to get much action until he signed a few days later with the Eagles for $8 million a season. Murray was traded after just one year, took a small pay cut with the Titans, and is now out of football. Luckily for the teams they paid the position.

Bell is a better player than Murray, but I do think its pretty fair to say that free agency may not be the windfall he may expect. To that line of thinking if the Steelers were really serious last year about doing a long term contract they probably should have let Bell test free agency and see what was out there. Given that he expressed his value to the Steelers and the Steelers expressed what they were willing to do and that there was a disparity there almost the only way to settle that for this position is by testing free agency. Sure you risk losing the player but playing the tag game benefits nobody if you really wanted a long term contract in the first place.

We’ll get that answer in 2019 though Bell will be older which could impact some decision making. There may be a team with an old school coach (see Gruden, John) who doesn’t care and backs up the truck for a talent like Bell, but there may be a large number of teams that really hesitate to commit anything significant. If the latter occurs the Steelers probably have an opportunity to keep Bell if they would like to do so.

Unless Bell really breaks the bank, though, it still won’t signal a meaningful change to the position. While our historical contracts are not complete I looked at a number of older (2003 onward) and current contracts that were at least three years in length and inflated the contract values into todays dollars by using the salary cap growth as the baseline. The numbers are pretty staggering. The highest paid running backs since 2013 (Lesean McCoy and DeMarco Murray) rank 27th overall. Its probably even lower when you consider that I am definitely missing names from the 2000s.

This is another thing that could be a reason for Bell to look for more from his team. While I mentioned how Bell’s offer would be second to only Peterson’s all time, Petersons contract is essentially a $21 million contract in todays NFL. That kind of makes sense because Peterson was considered as valuable as a lower end QB and that is where the $21M number would land. If we take an average of the top 10 inflated contracts it would work out to a deal that averages around $16.5M a year which is probably similar to what Bell wants. So there is an argument to be made on his behalf for that figure even if the argument is thrown out.

As I looked through the list some of the names, like Lamont Jordan at $12.4M or Jonathan Stewart around $11M, were pretty surprising, but when the position was treated almost like a second or third tier QB it became important for teams to have these players so they were paid. Its no different than how this era has Sam Bradford earning close to $20 million.

The running back peak probably ended in 2012 which was the last season in which teams were willing to financially commit to the 1 back concept. In 2011 and 2012 signings included Peterson, Chris Johnson, McCoy, Arian Foster, DeAngelo Williams, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, and Stewart to contracts that would exceed any contract signed since then. David Johnson will likely sign the next big extension and has a chance to crack the top 25.

It is a completely different dynamic than Quarterback. Using Peyton Manning as an example his three contracts, signed in 2004, 2011, and 2012 would be worth $30.8M, $26.5M, and $28.2M in todays NFL. Basically he would be right around the top of the NFL indicating that top end QB contracts have more or less kept up with or slightly exceeded salary cap growth. Running backs are nowhere near the top and its certainly no lock that Bell will magically get there. Even the Steelers current offer only placed him 10th.

Here are the top 50 inflated contract values for the players I had some data on.

RankNameTeamYear SignedYearsIAPY
1Adrian PetersonVikings20116$20,922,971
2Chris JohnsonTitans20114$19,863,697
3Clinton PortisRedskins20046$18,018,992
4LaDainian TomlinsonChargers20046$17,592,018
5Priest HolmesChiefs20034$16,271,348
6Reggie BushSaints20066$15,200,980
7Jamal LewisRavens20063$15,056,208
8Deuce McAllisterSaints20057$14,137,511
9Larry JohnsonChiefs20075$14,011,163
10Shaun AlexanderSeahawks20068$13,395,863
11LeSean McCoyEagles20125$13,223,881
12Edgerrin JamesCardinals20064$13,029,412
13Arian FosterTexans20125$12,783,085
14DeAngelo WilliamsPanthers20115$12,659,772
15Lamont JordanRaiders20055$11,398,830
16Steven JacksonRams20086$11,336,009
17Frank Gore49ers20074$11,194,138
18Matt ForteBears20124$11,166,833
19Marshawn LynchSeahawks20124$11,019,900
20Jonathan StewartPanthers20125$10,726,036
21Darren McFaddenRaiders20086$10,629,802
22Maurice Jones-DrewJaguars20094$10,561,298
23Ray RiceRavens20125$10,285,240
24Willis McGaheeRavens20077$10,273,911
25Fred TaylorJaguars20073$10,012,768
26Brian WestbrookEagles20055$9,982,490
27LeSean McCoyBills20155$9,906,281
28DeMarco MurrayEagles20155$9,893,914
29Marion BarberCowboys20087$9,758,868
30Thomas JonesJets20073$9,322,699
31Frank Gore49ers20113$9,274,019
32Ahman GreenTexans20074$9,260,118
33DeAngelo WilliamsPanthers20065$9,164,020
34Devonta FreemanFalcons20175$8,753,892
35Michael TurnerFalcons20086$8,728,765
36Rudi JohnsonBEngals20054$8,614,925
37LaDainian TomlinsonChargers20093$8,248,761
38Doug MartinBuccaneers20165$8,159,851
39Saquon BarkleyGiants20184$7,798,688
40Jerick McKinnon49ers20184$7,500,000
41Lamar MillerTexans20164$7,418,046
42Chris IvoryJaguars20165$7,303,922
43DeMarco MurrayTitans20164$7,275,391
44Leonard FournetteJaguars20174$7,201,423
45Ezekiel ElliottCowboys20164$7,120,280
46C.J. SpillerBills20105$6,936,003
47Adrian PetersonVikings20075$6,025,521
48Giovani BernardBengals20163$5,896,396
49Reggie BushLions20134$5,762,602
50Latavius MurrayVikings20173$5,305,389