Le'Veon Bell wants to be the NFL's highest-paid running back. He has made this pretty clear. He probably deserves to be, and there's a good chance he will be.
But if the Pittsburgh Steelers want to beat the July 17 deadline for agreeing to long-term deals with franchise players and keep Bell from playing on a one-year, $12.12 million contract in 2017, they're going to have to find a deal that makes both sides happy. That might not be easy, but there's reason to believe they can get there.
We took a look last week at Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins' contract situation. Like Cousins, Bell has been designated a franchise player. Unlike Cousins, Bell doesn't play quarterback. That means Cousins is in a position to cash in no matter what, and he likely doesn't have much incentive to beat that July 17 deadline.
Bell does, though, which is why he's more likely to sign in advance of the deadline and get a deal that sets the new top of the running back market.
After speaking with sources around the league, here's a look at Bell's contract situation, the risks each side faces if no deal gets done within the next few weeks, and how it's likely to turn out.
The running back landscape
As mentioned, Bell's franchise number is $12.12 million, which makes him far and away the league's highest-paid running back. The second-highest running back salary in 2017 is LeSean McCoy's $6.425 million. The highest average annual salary for a running back on a multiyear deal is McCoy's $8.05 million. The feeling in the industry is that even the deals Doug Martin ($7.25 million per year) and Chris Ivory ($6.4 million per year) signed in 2016 were too big.
The top end of the running back market is not upwardly inclined, and Bell's number is well out of line with the rest of the market at his position. Which is why multiple league sources said that Bell's agent would do very well to get anything in excess of $10 million per year on a multiyear deal.
If the Steelers wanted to place the franchise tag on Bell again next year, they'd have to pay him 120 percent of this season's salary, which means $14.544 million. As great a player as Bell is, there's not a lot of precedent for going 80 percent beyond the top of the market on a new contract. It's unlikely the Steelers would franchise Bell for a second year in a row, and it would be in their -- and the league's -- best interest to bring Bell's salary and cap number closer to McCoy's.
"Even if he gets $10 million a year, that's 25 percent more than any other running back is making right now," one front-office executive said. "You'd have to call that a market-moving deal."
The franchise player rules state that Bell and the Steelers have until July 17 to work out a long-term deal, or else he has to play out the season on the franchise tag and they're not allowed to discuss a long-term deal again until after the Steelers' season ends.
Why Bell should be motivated to do a deal now
Unlike Cousins, Bell can't be certain his franchise-level money will be there for him if he hits the open market in 2018. Cousins is making $24 million this year, and Washington would have to pay $35 million to franchise him again next year (or $28.8 million to transition tag him) because it would be his third year on the franchise tag. That means Cousins is probably telling Washington any deal he does now has to offer more than $59 million in guarantees. Being a quarterback in a quarterback-starved league, Cousins knows he'll find that kind of money on the open market if he gets there healthy in March.
But Bell is a running back in a league that doesn't value them highly, and he certainly can't count on a $14.544 million payday awaiting him if he gets to the market next March. At that point, even though he'd be the star of a free-agent running back class that could include the likes of Devonta Freeman, Jeremy Hill, Eddie Lacy, Isaiah Crowell and Carlos Hyde, he's not likely to find a team willing to pay him $6.5 million more a year than LeSean McCoy makes.
Plus, as brilliant a player as Bell is, the Steelers' counterargument in negotiations has some strong roots on the availability front. Bell was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season and the first three games of the 2016 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and he has missed an additional 12 regular-season games because of injury in his four-year career. The Steelers have seen what he can do -- 1,361 rushing yards, 83 catches for 854 yards and 11 total touchdowns in his lone full season in 2014. But they also haven't been able to count on having him on the field.
When it comes time to talk about what his salary should be, how much should be guaranteed and for how long, these are good points that hurt Bell's case.
Bell could try to pull a Darrelle Revis and go year-to-year trying to set new running back salary standards on one-year contracts. But the injury risk at his position and the way the market treats his position make that a risky strategy. One more injury or suspension could knock the floor right out from under his market value. He'd do well to lock in some more guarantees now.
"You have to ask a lot of questions about a guy -- does he take hard coaching, is he a positive influence or a negative influence in the locker room, what's his health been like, how important is the game to him?" said another front-office executive, speaking generally about long-term deals, not about Bell in particular. "With some players, you're better off going year-to-year."
Why the Steelers should be motivated to do a deal now
While that last point might be true and might pertain here, Bell's 2017 number is out of whack. And allowing him to play out the season on a one-year, $12.12 million deal risks setting his expectations too high and leaving themselves unable to meet them before he hits the market next spring.
The Steelers don't have an obvious replacement for everything Bell offers. Their running back depth chart behind him includes Knile Davis, Fitzgerald Toussaint and third-round rookie James Conner, who might someday prove himself a starter but even in his best-case scenario probably can't approximate Bell's versatility. Bell didn't just lead the Steelers in rushing last season, he also was second in receptions (by 27!) and second in receiving yards.
"The argument for Le'Veon is that not only is he your best running back, but he's equivalent to the third-best wide receiver on your team," said one league source who works on contracts and the salary cap. "The next guy coming up who's anything like him is Ezekiel Elliott, and he's three or four years away from a deal."
So the risk to the Steelers is being without the player. He already skipped a mandatory minicamp, though they couldn't fine him for that because he hasn't yet signed his franchise tender and therefore isn't officially on their roster. If they don't sign him before July 17, there's a chance he skips some of training camp (possible), all of training camp (less possible) or regular-season games (highly unlikely, at a salary of $713,000 a week). A player in Bell's situation holds out because he wants the team to contemplate what life would be like without him. And given the possibility that he could price himself out of their budget as a 2018 free agent, failure to do a deal before July 17 could force the Steelers to spend the whole season living with the fear of not having him anymore.
The Steelers are operating at the back end of their franchise quarterback window. Ben Roethlisberger is 35 and publicly contemplated retirement this offseason. Teams in this position feel an urgency to win soon, before having to replace the quarterback, and Bell is the type of game-changing player who helps the Steelers consider themselves real title contenders as long as Roethlisberger is there.
They're also a team that seems to live in perpetual salary-cap trouble. And while the Steelers appear to be in the middle of the 2018 pack in terms of cap space right now, there are contract issues to confront other than Bell's. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is scheduled to play on a $615,000 exclusive rights tender this season and earn a maximum of $4.2 million on a first-round restricted free agent tender in 2018. It might behoove the Steelers to make Villanueva happy with a new deal sometime in the next year. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt also is going to need a new deal, as he has one year left on his rookie contract at the bargain price of $1,048,560. Getting Bell squared away now would give the Steelers flexibility to work on other pressing issues and allow them to franchise Tuitt next year, if need be.
What's most likely to happen
There's plenty of incentive for both sides to get a deal done before July 17. The Steelers can reasonably offer Bell a four-year contract worth something in the range of $40 million to $45 million with about $20 million in guarantees. That would qualify as three years and $28 million-to-$33 million worth of "new money" (over and above what he already has in hand for 2017) and about $8 million in new guarantees. It would put Bell's average annual salary over $10 million, possibly threaten $11 million, and allow the Steelers to spread signing-bonus money out over the next four years for cap savings purposes.
Bell and his agent could stand on principle, say they already have $12.12 million in hand and won't take a deal that averages a penny less per year. But that's a risky stance for a player who has had trouble staying on the field and who plays a position in which the next-highest-paid player is making only two-thirds that much.
Again, Bell's situation is not the same as Cousins' situation. At the end of this season, Cousins will have earned $44 million over the past two seasons -- enough to set up him and future generations of his family for a long time even if he never earns another nickel.
At the end of this season, if Bell plays on the franchise tag, he will have earned about $15 million in his five-year career, factoring in the salary and bonus money he had to forfeit because of his suspensions. It's a nice chunk of change, but not the kind of number that leaves a professional athlete feeling like he's all set.
Fortunately for Bell and the Steelers, the gap between Bell's current salary and the rest of the running back market is wide enough to offer ample middle ground for a deal that makes both sides happy. It's just a matter of ironing out the details, and there are plenty of reasons to think it gets done before the middle of July.