Determining the market for Le’Veon Bell and other running backs
Running backs in need of large contracts fear no more. Le’Veon Bell has come to save you all from being underpaid with the promise that he will not sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers unless he is offered a contract that single-handedly sets the bar for all future star running backs. How noble!
From what we can gather, the Steelers weren’t exactly offering peanuts to Bell either. We’re talking about a five-year contract that, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, includes $30 million during his first two seasons and $42 million during the last three. That’s pretty decent money.
But not decent enough for Le’Veon Bell. He’ll be playing for his guaranteed $12.1 million under the franchise year. The plan is to play so damn well that his value skyrockets to the point where he earns a contract that will not only make him the highest paid running back in the league, but will urge other teams to start breaking the bank for their respective star running backs.
Naturally, there’s a lot to talk about here. For starters: What Kind of Money Are We Talking Here?
Keeping in mind that Le’Veon Bell essentially just turned down a $72 million contract over five years assuming all goes well, you have to wonder what the asking price is going to be in the future. The highest running back contract ever concocted was awarded to Adrian Peterson in his prime Viking days with a whopping $86 million deal being offered over a course of six years. No other running back contract even comes close to the massive amount of money Peterson was slated to receive.
Granted, AP ended up earning a little better than half that after some season ending injuries and that year he was suspended. But base salary wise, Peterson was supposed to set the bar pretty high for future backs with very few even coming remotely close. Today, the highest paid running back is going to be Le’Veon Bell with his franchise tag contract. The next closest is Lesean’s McCoy’s $8 million he’s slated to earn this year.
So what exactly sets the bar?
Honestly, if Bell had taken this contract, he probably could have paved the way rather nicely. He would have had a nice and comfortable contract. But Bell seems to be shooting for the stars. One has to wonder if he’d be settling if he took anything less than what Peterson took.
Is that fair?
Bell is a talent; a patient, swift, and powerful back who makes the Steelers one of the most dangerous offenses. In his first four years, he has raked in 4,045 yards. Which is an insane number given his two years in a row of suspension and his injury history. He can and should be given a huge contract. Adrian Peterson, the supposed standard we’re assuming Bell wants to shoot for and possibly surpass, gained nearly 6,000 yards in his first four seasons; missing only three games in that four-year span.
Point blank, Le’Veon won’t be making Adrian Peterson levels of money when it comes time for his new contract unless some GM somewhere in the league is dumb enough to think he’s worth more than AP in his prime. So let’s assume that Bell can reasonably be offered a contract that is greater than a five-year $72 million dollar deal, but less than a six-year $86 million dollar deal.
Which blends into our next question: Who Could Be In The Market?
We tread lightly here because the 2018 cap spaces aren’t set in stone in yet. The trade deadline isn’t for another three months and there are still a handful of free agents on the market. But, assuming things run their current course, there are a very small handful of teams who have the money and need for an all-star like Bell.
Given that Pittsburgh has already offered Bell a sizable contract, it’s not too out of the question to assume they’ll make another run at Bell. When a player is that good and you have a little bit of coin to work with, you try to retain him. Now, signing Bell will lend itself to its own issues such as the future salary of Antonio Brown. But Pittsburgh will have to get creative over the course of the next year since Bell has already turned them down once and team loyalty doesn’t seem to be a factor for him. Drafting James Connor starts looking like Bell insurance more and more each day.
This one reeks of a slam dunk. The Lions run game is laughable at best as it stands, with no crystal clear option at running back. Ameer Abdullah has yet to take off and Theo Riddick leans more on the miss side despite having huge potential. On top of that, the Lions have the most cap space to work with going into 2018. It’s not quite 2017 Browns money, but it’s enough to make a real run at Bell if they so choose. It would balance out their offense so they’re not constantly relying on late game heroics from Matthew Stafford. The Detroit OL is nothing to sneeze at either, having just given it a boost with the signing of T.J. Lang.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners are the odd man out in the running back department. The Cardinals have David Johnson, the Rams could potentially see a bounce back season from Gurley, and the Seahawks are presently gambling on a healthy Eddie Lacy. The 49ers have Carlos Hyde entering a contract year. Now granted, Hyde is certainly not a bad running back. He’s young and can pick up a good amount of yards, but he has yet to hit a 1,000 yard season (which isn’t totally his fault given the state of San Fran as of late) but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to let Carlos Hyde walk in favor of trying to attract Le’Veon Bell to start offering anything to this anemic offense. They are good for the money and new GM John Lynch might just be crazy enough to want to put a star back in the red and gold.
Now let’s assume all the stars align. Bell makes major money, he joins a team that’s willing to shell out for his talents, what does this mean for the next backs in line? We are seeing a running back revolution as of late due to some bursts from recently drafted RBs including Le’Veon Bell. Should Bell land a monster contract next season it could open some major doors and start burning some major pockets:
Devonta Freeman: Atlanta Falcons (Contract Year: 2017-2018)
Freeman becomes a free man at the end of next season and is going to have a bit of leverage with the Atlanta Falcons. The very smart thing to do will be to wait and see what Bell gets offered and/or signs. Freeman, though not as heavy as Bell, does have a work horse style and is a bit more dependable than Bell. Yeah, I said it. Freeman has been an active starter for two seasons and has only missed one game while also raking over 1,000 yards in each season AND aiding his team in a Super Bowl effort. If Bell gets paid, Freeman can play the card of consistency and his Super Bowl pedigree. Freeman could ride real pretty into the Falcons front within hours of a huge Bell contract.
Tevin Coleman: Atlanta Falcons (Contract Year: 2018-2019)
Coleman, the “2” of the Falcons current 1-2 punch at halfback, will likely be finding himself on a new team once his contract runs out. Not because of lack of use, but because he is a clear starter and the Falcons will more than likely hitch their wagons to Freeman to the point where they may not be able to afford Coleman. That being said, a team struggling at halfback circa 2019 will have to be competing for somebody who could very likely be THE free agent halfback of the season, which means a pretty decent “prove you can start” level of contract for the speedy back.
David Johnson: Arizona Cardinals (Contract Year: 2018-2019)
Let’s not kid ourselves: if Bell demands a major contract, Johnson is going to be the back that surpasses his money. After filling in and taking off in 2015, his 2016 campaign was nothing short of extraordinary, coming in as a top 3 back, led the league in rushing touchdowns, and keeps Arizona in the game week after week. Already garnering potential MVP talk, Johnson is an absolute monster who will undoubtedly be challenging the Cardinals to break the bank. This is doable since, by the time it comes around for the Cardinals to sign Johnson, they will likely have lost Palmer and Fitzgerald to the sunset of retirement as well as any other player they’re going to have to part ways with in order to afford this back.
Doug Martin: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Contract Year: 2020-2021)
We have a long long way to go until Martin hits the market again, but it’s important to look at the veterans that could benefit from this and Douggie Fresh is the youngest of the vets. A disappointing 2016 means Martin is going to need to bounce back to demand a nice pay day by the time he hits his 10th season. There will be a handful of backs that will need to influence the market for veterans like Martin before we can decidedly say anything. Jay Ajayi, Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, and Todd Gurley will be influencing the market after the initial backs we’ve discussed here do. If those four can keep up their games up and Doug keeps up with this younger generation, Martin could be a major influencer for veterans looking to make decent money.
The running back position is hitting a magical time. We have more than two or three running backs who are exciting to watch and, deserving or not, one of them is now willing to raise the torch and bring back an era where a dominant back can and should demand a higher contract. Bell may not be the hero we asked for, but he’s definitely a hero who deserves a big pay day. So, yes, Le’Veon, you could just save the running back position. Don’t mess it up in 2017, big guy.