Running backs have been stuck at about $8 million per year for a few seasons now. And so is Freeman, who is a terrific player but was never getting double-digit millions annually, as he wanted. The Falcons came low, Freeman went high, the sweet spot was around $8 million. Pretty easy deal to do.
That sets the stage for the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, who is the best tailback candidate to reach the $10 million-per-year threshold. Injuries aside, he's a unique talent who deserves more than what running backs are getting. But Bell has held true to his belief that his receiving/rushing ability elevates him to his own market, somewhere between running backs and top receivers ($15 million to $17 million per year). Bell told ESPN as much last month, noting that his 75 catches last season ranked second on the team behind receiver Antonio Brown. (Of course, per-year money doesn't matter much if the guarantees are low, but it helps guide us in this case.)
Freeman's deal keeps the market stagnant, which was part of Bell's original problem. With the franchise tag at $12.1 million (Bell can thank Adrian Peterson for that) and the top tailbacks at around $8 million, the Steelers aimed for a middle ground that Bell wasn't willing to take.
Yes, Bell did turn down a competitive offer from the Steelers. The NFL Network reported last month that the offer included up to $42 million over the first three years, $30 million over two. After asking around, I don't think the Steelers were prepared to go anywhere near that high without major window dressing. The Steelers typically guarantee only the signing bonus and first-year earnings. With a hefty bonus similar to Freeman's $15 million and modest salaries of $4 million and $6 million plus a Year 2 roster bonus, that $30 million might have been attainable.
But it was never as simple as $42 million for three years. If so, Bell would have jumped at the deal. The Steelers had a few hesitations based on Bell's injury/suspension history, despite his greatness as a player. They weren't ready to go crazy.
One thing that could change that hesitancy would be Bell's brilliance on display for 16 games, plus the playoffs. Then, the Steelers would be staring at a $14.5 million franchise tag (again, thanks to AP), knowing they can't lose an indispensable player still in his prime, as Bell turns 26 in February.
Bell has the advantage of a franchise tag that Freeman didn't. Bell is using that advantage now by training in South Florida, away from the team -- if you call it an advantage, of course. The Steelers would argue that Bell is risking getting nada if he hurts himself before signing the tender.
Bell is on his own negotiating playing field. Freeman wasn't changing that.