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.

Rank Name Team Year Signed Years IAPY
1 Adrian Peterson Vikings 2011 6 $20,922,971
2 Chris Johnson Titans 2011 4 $19,863,697
3 Clinton Portis Redskins 2004 6 $18,018,992
4 LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers 2004 6 $17,592,018
5 Priest Holmes Chiefs 2003 4 $16,271,348
6 Reggie Bush Saints 2006 6 $15,200,980
7 Jamal Lewis Ravens 2006 3 $15,056,208
8 Deuce McAllister Saints 2005 7 $14,137,511
9 Larry Johnson Chiefs 2007 5 $14,011,163
10 Shaun Alexander Seahawks 2006 8 $13,395,863
11 LeSean McCoy Eagles 2012 5 $13,223,881
12 Edgerrin James Cardinals 2006 4 $13,029,412
13 Arian Foster Texans 2012 5 $12,783,085
14 DeAngelo Williams Panthers 2011 5 $12,659,772
15 Lamont Jordan Raiders 2005 5 $11,398,830
16 Steven Jackson Rams 2008 6 $11,336,009
17 Frank Gore 49ers 2007 4 $11,194,138
18 Matt Forte Bears 2012 4 $11,166,833
19 Marshawn Lynch Seahawks 2012 4 $11,019,900
20 Jonathan Stewart Panthers 2012 5 $10,726,036
21 Darren McFadden Raiders 2008 6 $10,629,802
22 Maurice Jones-Drew Jaguars 2009 4 $10,561,298
23 Ray Rice Ravens 2012 5 $10,285,240
24 Willis McGahee Ravens 2007 7 $10,273,911
25 Fred Taylor Jaguars 2007 3 $10,012,768
26 Brian Westbrook Eagles 2005 5 $9,982,490
27 LeSean McCoy Bills 2015 5 $9,906,281
28 DeMarco Murray Eagles 2015 5 $9,893,914
29 Marion Barber Cowboys 2008 7 $9,758,868
30 Thomas Jones Jets 2007 3 $9,322,699
31 Frank Gore 49ers 2011 3 $9,274,019
32 Ahman Green Texans 2007 4 $9,260,118
33 DeAngelo Williams Panthers 2006 5 $9,164,020
34 Devonta Freeman Falcons 2017 5 $8,753,892
35 Michael Turner Falcons 2008 6 $8,728,765
36 Rudi Johnson BEngals 2005 4 $8,614,925
37 LaDainian Tomlinson Chargers 2009 3 $8,248,761
38 Doug Martin Buccaneers 2016 5 $8,159,851
39 Saquon Barkley Giants 2018 4 $7,798,688
40 Jerick McKinnon 49ers 2018 4 $7,500,000
41 Lamar Miller Texans 2016 4 $7,418,046
42 Chris Ivory Jaguars 2016 5 $7,303,922
43 DeMarco Murray Titans 2016 4 $7,275,391
44 Leonard Fournette Jaguars 2017 4 $7,201,423
45 Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 2016 4 $7,120,280
46 C.J. Spiller Bills 2010 5 $6,936,003
47 Adrian Peterson Vikings 2007 5 $6,025,521
48 Giovani Bernard Bengals 2016 3 $5,896,396
49 Reggie Bush Lions 2013 4 $5,762,602
50 Latavius Murray Vikings 2017 3 $5,305,389