It happens quite often in the four major American sports - a player has a contract dispute, to
which the team most often responds by either meeting the player’s demand, compromising with
the player, or refusing the player’s demand by either trading/releasing him.
Le’Veon Bell, however, is not a typical NFL running back, and as such his contract dispute is
anything but typical. Not only did the Pittsburgh Steelers refuse to give him a multi-year
contract, but they refused to negotiate with him period. Which means, then, that five weeks into
the NFL season, Bell has yet to report to the team, losing over $850,000 for every game
missed. His impact is all but cemented - not that he needs to prove himself - as the Steelers,
arguably the perennial second-best team in the AFC behind the New England Patriots, have
essentially treaded water in his absence, compiling a 2-2-1 record.
Bell is disputing what is called the franchise tag. Simply put, every NFL team is allowed to re-
sign one player planned to hit unrestricted free agency. That player receives a fully-guaranteed,
one-year contract that, at a minimum, must pay the average of the top five yearly salaries at that
position. So, for example, if the top 5 quarterbacks averaged a $20 million salary per year, any
team who wants to designate its franchise tag to a quarterback must give that quarterback a
fully-guaranteed one-year, $20 million contract.
Bell not only believes he is worth more than his franchise tag of $14.55 million; he believes he is
worth a long-term contract, with which teams are generally unwilling to reward running backs.
More importantly, the Steelers are at an advantage by tagging Bell because they can give him
an extremely heavy workload if he plays, which not only maximizes his contract value but wears
him out in the process as well. This increases his risk of injury and, thus, his risk of losing
millions in future contract negotiations. His teammates are obviously frustrated with him on the
sidelines, but not all the blame lies with Bell. The Steelers had their chance to respond
adequately to Bell and failed to do so. They could have released him this past offseason after
he had clearly expressed frustration with being franchise-tagged for a second year in a row, and
they instead held out.
There are several short and long-term implications of this situation, and very few that will be
determined before Bell makes his next move. He could return to the field next week, for all we
know, and play out the rest of his tag before leaving, if he’s satisfied with how much wear and
tear he’s already saved. In fact, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, he may report by week 7,
which officially begins October 14. He could hold out past week 10, which would nullify his entire
tag, and then he would still be gone anyway having saved his body an entire season.
The Steelers could even trade him - in fact, they’ve actively listened to offers since week 3. Will
anyone, though, trade assets for what is basically 8 guaranteed weeks of Le’Veon Bell before
he hits free agency? Therein lies the crux of trading for Bell.
How might the holdout negatively affect him? Well, for one, teams might question his passion
for the game. It’s very easy for a team to look at Bell and say he prioritized money over his
teammates. That might not be a fair assessment for arguably the best running back in the NFL,
but as the importance of locker room culture grows (exhibit 1: the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles), it
is at least a semi-legitimate claim when considering a long-term commitment to a player.
Moreover, teams might see his holdout as a way of showing that Bell is injury-prone.
More importantly, though, the fact that he turned down an offer that would have made him the
highest-paid running back in the NFL is almost sure to turn some teams away. For whatever
reason - most likely that he wasn’t getting enough guaranteed money - he turned down a five-
year, $70 million offer from the Steelers. If he holds out the rest of the season, Bell is truly
betting on himself if he thinks he will receive an equal or better offer next offseason. Not to say
he isn’t worth the money, but it’s fair to think that teams might avoid going through the
negotiating process with him to begin with when they see the magnitude of the offer that he
Could it positively affect him? Of course. He is still only 26 years old, right within what is usually a running back’s prime, and if he isn’t in a talent class of his own, it’s surely a very small one.
Teams need elite players to win championships, and so there should be no shortage of suitors
for Bell. Considering he will be an unrestricted free agent, he also controls his own market, as
opposed to if the Steelers were to trade him.
If Bell gets a deal he likes, however, the real benefits will be reaped by future running backs.
Todd Gurley’s four-year, $57 million contract (with $45 million guaranteed) with the Los Angeles
Rams sets a precedent for elite running backs in terms of guaranteed money. Bell saw that
contract and felt he deserved that and more, which his production warrants.
Bell getting a strong long-term deal, along with that of Gurley, could set off a chain reaction of
running backs demanding more money, and it will be a trickle-down effect from the elite running
backs to the second and third tiers and so forth. After all, contract precedents have pervasive
effects on positions. Quarterbacks such as Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk
Cousins, for example - good, but not elite quarterbacks - are making north of $25 million per
year, much of that guaranteed.
Bell would argue that he’s worth more to a franchise than a Jimmy Garoppolo or a Kirk Cousins.
Are top-15 quarterbacks really worth twice as much as top-5 running backs? It’s a legitimate
question to ask, and one that’s probably at the crux of Bell’s grievances. Maybe they are, if
passing is that much more valuable than rushing. It’s often cited that running backs bear the
brunt of the wear and tear on the field and so the lack of long-term contracts is justified.
Nevertheless, offensive linemen, who play arguably the most physical position in the NFL,
receive longer-term contracts and make more per year on average than running backs.
Whatever the case is, one thing is sure - Le’Veon Bell is betting on himself in such a manner
that no NFL player has done before. It’s always been assumed that when push comes to shove,
players will eventually take the money and play. Well, not for Bell. No, he may not receive
exactly the contract he desires or thinks he’s worth, but his holdout is sure to have implications,
not only on the way running backs approach their first contract negotiations, but on the way
teams approach negotiations with their most elite players.
For all the criticisms from his teammates and the so-called “NFL experts,” the fact of the matter
is he is willing to sacrifice millions for something he believes in. Sound familiar?
USBC Journal Writer
Class of 2020