We’re inching closer and closer to football being on our televisions again, I promise. The NFL regular season is a little over a month away. If you don’t want to wait that long and are looking for some preseason action, the league’s annual Hall of Fame Game kicks off Thursday night in Canton, Ohio. Either way, you won’t have to hold out for much longer. Speaking of holding out, Le’Veon Bell’s deal-or-no-deal shenanigans are in full swing for the second consecutive offseason.
Bell, his agent, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract by the July 16 deadline, meaning the 26-year-old running back will play under the franchise tag yet again. Just over a week after said deadline passed, fellow star RB Todd Gurley received a monster four-year, $60 million contract extension from the Rams. Bell kept his thoughts on the situation short and sweet:
lol and ppl thought I was trippin?…
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 24, 2018
Bell isn’t exactly ‘trippin’. He’s worth plenty of money and is arguably the best RB in the league (yes, ahead of Gurley). The only problem is, well… Pittsburgh appears to have offered him plenty:
From what I understand, the #Steelers’ final offer to RB Le’Veon Bell was 5 years, $70M with more than $30M over 2 years. Last year, the offer was 5 years, $60M. … Instead, he’ll earn $14.5M on another franchise tag.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 16, 2018
Doing some math, we find that Gurley’s extension carries an average annual value (AAV) of $15 million. Pittsburgh’s rejected offer featured one more year in contract length but came at the cost of $1 million per year, with an AAV of $14 million. Bell is nearly three years older than Gurley and has plenty more injury/wear-and-tear miles on him (more on that later), so the two deals seem pretty even in my eyes. While I respect Bell for betting on himself and chasing the money he believes he’s worth, there are a plethora of reasons why this risk is too serious to take and could end ugly for one of the best talents in the league.
Put this in the column today but think it’s also worth mentioning in graphical form. Here are the leaders in passing, receiving, and rushing yards from five years ago (2013) per @pfref. The lines blotted out in red are for players who aren’t on an NFL roster. pic.twitter.com/L0005bW8N0
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) July 25, 2018
This tweet is quite alarming. Five years ago, Adrian Peterson (one of the toughest RBs of all-time) was 28. Matt Forte and Chris Johnson were 27. Jamaal Charles was 26. DeMarco Murray was 25. Alfred Morris was just 24. None of the aforementioned backs are on NFL rosters today. Le’Veon Bell is 26 right now. I wanted to see how Bell’s total touches at this point in his career compared to those of the backs listed, so I created the chart below:
|Name||Touches through age-25 season||Touches through 5th season|
Although Bell ranks third among the seven players in touches through the 5th season, he has a 224-touch lead in touches through the age-25 season. At this age, he’s racked up far more miles than the next-closest player, not to mention the player beneath him had a reputation for being nearly indestructible. When you think of Le’Veon Bell, do you think of machine-like durability? No, which brings me to my next point…
After throwing away his three games missed due to injury his rookie season, let’s draw out a timeline of Le’Veon Bell’s injury history:
- 2014/15: Week 17 knee injury. MIssed WC playoff game.
- 2015/16: Week 9 MCL/PCL tear in knee. Missed remainder of the season. Required surgery.
- 2016/17: Played through groin injury until partway through AFC championship. Required surgery.
- 2017/18: First completely healthy season of career.
This isn’t a scary injury history by any means, but it’s something that should make any team willing to offer Bell a position-leading amount of money very cautious. Not only has Bell been touching the ball at an alarming rate, but he also has some injuries to show for it. As age and wear-and-tear (more so the latter for the time being) begin to play even more of a factor moving forward, the chance of injury will only increase. Missing various amount of playoff action in three consecutive seasons before 2017-18 is a red flag. Speaking of red flags, let’s keep it moving to…
Not only has Bell missed games due to a myriad of injuries, but he’s also gotten in trouble with the NFL twice. Heading into the 2015-16 season, Bell was arrested on DUI and marijuana possession charges. What was initially a four-game suspension was reduced to three by the league, then down to two via an appeal by Bell. While it was a big boost for the Steelers to have their star running back on the field for two extra games that year, the fact that Bell got suspended in the first place cost the team two weeks of his services.
A little over a year removed from his first suspension, Bell was issued another one for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy by missing a drug test. He would again successfully appeal and have the suspension reduced, this time from four games to three.
Yes, I get it – a missed drug test is possibly an innocent mistake. A DUI isn’t, though. Possessing marijuana isn’t, though. Injury concerns are worrisome enough by themselves. Adding character concerns into the picture makes things a lot more difficult when it comes to a team deciding whether to stand by its player or its financial freedom at the negotiation table. At the end of the day, it’s all about how valuable a player is to his team. Let’s dive a bit deeper into that.
Are running backs worth huge contracts!?
What if I told you the importance of the running back position was a bit overstated? Some outlets (here and here) suggest that although it’s important to have a sound running game and having a good-to-great one will help your team, there are far more important positions to worry about allocating money to. The average salary of a running back ($1.4 million) is measly compared to that of an outside linebacker ($2.5 million), cornerback ($1.9 million), wide receiver ($1.8 million) or quarterback ($5.2 million).
Half of the league’s top 10 leading rushers from last season (Bell included) weren’t first round picks, adding to the notion that there is an abundance of talented running backs throughout the league and the draft. Finding a starting-caliber running back isn’t very difficult for NFL front office personnel. Of the last 10 Super Bowl winners (see my chart below), a whopping seven of them failed to record a 1,000-yard rusher during the regular season:
|SB Winner||Rushing OFF Rank||Passing OFF Rank||Leading Rusher|
|2018 Eagles||3||13||Blount (766)|
|2017 Patriots||7||4||Blount (1161)|
|2016 Broncos||17||14||Hillman (863)|
|2015 Patriots||18||9||Gray (412)|
|2014 Seahawks||4||26||Lynch (1257)|
|2013 Ravens||11||15||Rice (1143)|
|2012 Giants||32||5||Bradshaw (659)|
|2011 Packers||24||5||Jackson (703)|
|2010 Saints||6||4||Thomas (793)|
|2009 Steelers||23||17||Parker (791)|
On average, those teams had the 14th or 15th-best rushing offense in the league the year they brought home the Lombardi Trophy. Running backs simply don’t move the needle as much as the general population believes they do. It would help you to have a great one but if you don’t, it shouldn’t hurt your chances of winning by that much. So where am I going with all of this data?
Would I pay Le’Veon Bell what he’s asking for?
To be honest: no. Although Le’Veon Bell is an amazing player, a great talent and would help any team a lot, I don’t think he’s quite worth his astronomical asking salary, considering the baggage he’d bring along with him. 26 years old may not sound old but as a running back, you’re at the top of the hill at that point. For a player with Bell’s insane mileage, there’s a chance he might be closer to the end of the road than the beginning. Furthermore, there are legitimate concerns about Bell’s ability to stay on the field, whether because of injury or off-the-field troubles. Finally, Pittsburgh losing him isn’t going to be the end of the world. Not only would the team be able to go after a much more affordable option (there are plenty), but it would also have the financial flexibility needed to make a splash signing or two at more important positions. Losing one thing (Bell) might end up being a net win in the end.
All in all, NFL running backs have short shelf-lives, are more susceptible to injuries than their counterparts, and simply aren’t worth mega-deals. Todd Gurley is a 23-year-old and a top-two/three talent in the league with a clean bill of health at the NFL level, so I understand the Rams paying him what they did. I’d, albeit only somewhat, understand Pittsburgh paying Le’Veon Bell the five-year, $70 million deal it offered him in the event he accepted it. Nonetheless, Bell decided to play another year under the franchise tag, log more carries + receptions on his body, age a year and try to secure a major payday next offseason. We’ll see how that works out.
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