LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- NFL running backs could use a win.
Despite nine backs producing at least 1,500 total yards in 2017, the highest-paid player on a long-term deal (Devonta Freeman, $8.25 million per year) makes less than 10 4-3 defensive ends.
“I told him I can’t wait till you get your contract, because I’m going to be right behind you," New Orleans Saints tailback Alvin Kamara said. "He was like, 'You have to get what you deserve, what you’re worth.' With him being able to do that, for him being the guinea pig, I guess, get all his money and get all his worth, I think it’s going to bring the position back."
After Bell missed training camp over the lack of a long-term contract, forcing him to play on the $12.1 million franchise tag in 2017, he has renewed optimism for a deal based on recent discussions with the team.
Bell admits some of his Pro Bowl teammates thought he was "crazy" for turning down a contract offer last offseason. Reports said that contract would have paid around $30 million over the first two years. But Bell told Gurley, LeSean McCoy and others about his plan, which he won't reveal publicly, and now they "kind of root for me," he said.
"There are a lot of things that we do. I just feel we should be a little more appreciated," Bell said.
Recent draft classes have been filled with talented running backs, and that could affect the market. Why pay obscene money when players such as Kareem Hunt can lead the league in rushing as a third-round rookie?
But Gurley recognizes Bell is a great player, and he hopes the growing numbers make the position unified come payout time.
“It’s all about us supporting each other. We play this game because we love it," the Los Angeles Rams back said. "We need to support our families. We only have a short period of time [as running backs], so we want to make as much money as we can. Le'Veon is a great running back. He’s going to set it. Everything else will go from there.
"[The market] is changing, brother. We're back."
Gurley points to the production. Top backs can account for nearly 40 percent of a team's offense. Gurley is considered an MVP candidate thanks to 2,093 total yards, and 788 of them came as a receiver. Bell, meanwhile, has averaged 129 yards from scrimmage per game since entering the league in 2013, the highest clip over a player’s first five seasons since the NFL-AFL merger.
"The game has evolved," Gurley said. "You look at guys like Le'Veon. Back in the day, we used to be more run-run-run. Now it’s kind of pass, and we want to get in on the fun, too.”
Bell told ESPN earlier this month that he was willing to sit out the year or retire if asked to play on the franchise tag for a second consecutive year. Peers have noticed the conviction.
"You have to pay people what he’s worth, especially a guy that’s willing to sit down and wait for what he’s worth," Kamara said.
Hunt recognizes that backs must consider longevity more than any NFL position. That's why he knows a simple solution for Bell and the Steelers.
"Pay him," he said.