Agent's Take: What Le'Veon Bell should expect in free agency, and landing spots that make the most sense

The Steelers chapter of Le'Veon Bell's NFL career officially came to a close on Wednesday when vice president & general manager Kevin Colbert announced at a press conference that a franchise or transition designation would not be used on the running back. Bell becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 13. The Steelers will still have Bell's exclusive negotiating rights until March 11, when the two-day negotiation period prior to the start of free agency where agents can have contract discussions with the entire league about their impending free-agent clients begins.

Bell, who just turned 27, missed the 2018 season rather than make $14.544 million playing under a franchise tag for a second straight year. He was the first franchise player to sit out a full season since Chiefs defensive end Dan Williams in 1998.

Bell had major concerns about how another heavy usage season would impact his ability to land a big contract this offseason. He led the NFL with 321 carries and 406 touches (combined receptions and rushing attempts) in 2017 despite sitting out the season finale for precautionary measures with the playoffs looming.

Bell rejected a five-year deal in the $14 million to $15 million per year range containing a $10 million signing bonus and a $10 million roster bonus due a few days after signing as the mid-July deadline for long term deals with franchise players was approaching, according to various reports. Slightly over $33 million of the money was in the first two years. The three-year cash flow was $45 million to $47 million.

Pittsburgh had demonstrated a willingness to fundamentally change a running back market that had been steadily declining in recent years. Bell found the way the Steelers structure veteran contracts problematic. Veteran contracts in Pittsburgh have a vanilla structure. The overall guarantees in Pittsburgh contracts are usually less than comparable deals on other teams. With the exception of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract, the only guaranteed money is typically a signing bonus. Roethlisberger has base salary guarantees for injury only. The bigger deals contain a third or fifth day of the league year roster bonus in the second and third years. Occasionally, there is a first-year roster bonus as reportedly in Bell's offer. These roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees.

The running back market

Bell's exact financial demands during last year's negotiations were never disclosed. He reportedly wanted the same $17 million per year disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is on the trading block, got from the Steelers in a 2017 contract extension. Previously, Bell alluded to needing $15 million per year in a rap song. After the Steelers disclosed their plans with Bell, CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora reported that the three-time All-Pro running back is seeking $50 million in the first two years of his contract.

The current running back salary standards in key contract metrics listed below could be relevant to Bell's free agency.

  • Average yearly salary: $14.375 million (Todd Gurley, Rams)
  • Overall contract guarantees: $45 million (Gurley)
  • Fully guaranteed at signing: $31,194,750 (Saquon Barkley, Giants)
  • Fully guaranteed at signing (veteran): $24,682,500 (David Johnson, Cardinals)
  • Fully guaranteed within 12 months: $34.5 million (Gurley)
  • Signing bonus: $21 million (Gurley)
  • Three-year cash flow: $40 million (Gurley)
  • First three new years: $47,050,022 (Gurley)

Professionals within the industry (agents and team negotiators) typically value deals by new money, which is the amount of compensation in a contract excluding what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal. For example, Gurley had two years left on his contract totaling $11,949,978 when he received his new deal last July. Although he signed a six-year contract for $69,449,978, it's considered as a four-year, $57.5 million extension with a new money average of $14.375 million per year among industry professionals. Gurley's remaining contract years are subtracted from the $69,449,978 six-year total to arrive at this number.

Compensation in the first three new years is the amount of money in a contract exclusive of what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal, just like with new money when determining average yearly salary. The cash flow analysis looks at the compensation in its totality. The focus is on the amount of money received in the first three years of a contract regardless of whether it's considered as new money. Both metrics have the same dollar amount when a player signs a new contract as a free agent or when his contract is set to expire.

The Gurley extension, which came less than two weeks after Bell's signing deadline, was a game-changer for running backs. Gurley's deal represented an almost a 75 percent increase over the previous benchmark, which was Devonta Freeman's five-year extension with the Falcons averaging $8.25 million per year. At $14.375 million per year, Gurley became the highest-paid running back in NFL history. The deal includes $2.5 million of realistically achievable salary escalators to bring the maximum value to $60 million over the four new years.

David Johnson helped solidify the dramatic reset of the running back market Gurley started. Hours before the Cardinals' 2018 regular season opener, Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension with $31,882,500 of guarantees. The deal is worth a maximum of $45 million through incentives.

Dissecting Bell's decision

Bell's decision to forego $14.544 million in a peak earning year seems hard to justify from a financial standpoint. Recouping the $14.544 million he's lost will be a difficult, if not impossible, proposition.

One way to analyze Bell's decision is to compare the last Steelers offer he rejected against what he'll need to make on the open market to be in a comparable position. Using the average of the available information about the rejected offer, Bell is essentially betting that there will be a team willing to pay him at least $72.5 million on a four-year deal, which has an $18.125 million average yearly salary. That's Bell's break-even point of the money he turned down from Pittsburgh. Such a deal would average more than Odell Beckham, Jr.'s $18 million per year extension with the Giants signed last preseason, which made him the NFL's highest paid wide receiver. Beckham's contract has $65 million in overall guarantees, where $40.959 million was fully guaranteed at signing.

Bell needs to sign a deal containing $33 million in the first year to be essentially in the same place he would have been through 2019 with the Pittsburgh offer. By contrast, Gurley has $28,505,022 of new money through his first new contract year (2020).

Bell's target of $50 million over the first two years is quite ambitious. He has to get $46 million through the first two years of his contract to equal what was in the rejected proposal. Gurley's new money through his first two new contract years is $37,050,022.

To put Bell's financial goal into further context, Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack and Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald are the only two non-quarterbacks with a two-year cash flow at or above $50 million. Mack leads the way with $56.5 million over his first two years. Donald is at $50 million. Mack's first two new years with $59.845 million is slightly behind Donald, who has $60.108 million in his first two new years.

The two are charter members of the $20 million per year non-quarterback club. Mack and Donald's respective six-year extensions average $23.5 million and $22.5 million per year.

Beckham's two year cash flow is $38.459 million. He has $44.25 million in his first two new years.

There's a school of thought that Bell will be able to make up any potential shortfall by extending his career because of the avoiding consecutive high mileage seasons in 2017 and 2018. Bell would 31 when his contract was up if he signed for four years. Sacrificing a peak earning year at 26 for additional longevity after 30 seems like a dicey proposition.

Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson, who are well into their 30s, were at the lower end of the running back salary spectrum in 2018. Peterson played for his $1.015 million league minimum. Marshawn Lynch was the highest-paid running back who signed a contract after turning 30. The two-year deal he received from the Raiders in 2017 averaged $4.5 million per year. It contained an additional $7.5 million in incentives. Lynch, who will be 33 in April, earned $1.4 million of his incentives.

Potential suitors

A running back like Bell hasn't hit the open market in quite some time. Bell has amassed yardage at a historic and unprecedented rate. Bell's 129 yards from scrimmage per game are the most in NFL history (minimum of 50 career games). Hall of Famer Jim Brown is second with 125.5 per game. Nobody has ever been better at picking up yards during the first five seasons of an NFL career. Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson are right behind Bell with 126 and 125.7 yards per game.

Teams with significant cap room and a quarterback on a low-cost rookie contract might be most intrigued by Bell. One team that fits that description is the Jets. Quarterback Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in last year's NFL Draft, is locked into a rookie contract through the 2021 season averaging just over $7.5 million per year. With the 2019 salary cap expected to be in the $190 million neighborhood, the Jets could have in excess of $90 million of cap space when free agency starts.

Another is the Texans. Bell would be the type of dual threat running back the Texans haven't had since Arian Foster during the early part of the decade. The addition of Bell would likely come at Lamar Miller's expense. 2019 is final year of the four-year, $26 million contract Miller signed in 2016. The Texans should still have over $60 million cap room after designating defensive end/outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney as a franchise player. Another $6.25 million of cap space would be gained from cutting Miller. Deshaun Watson is in entering his third year as quarterback. The Texans wouldn't have to address the 2017 12th overall pick's contract until 2020 at the earliest.

Bell apparently has the Colts high on his list. The Colts are projected to have the NFL's most salary cap room at right around $110 million. He wrote "just imagine" as a comment to an Instagram post highlighting quarterback Andrew Luck's eight game streak of three or more touchdowns in late November.

Bell may be more of an expensive luxury in Indianapolis than a necessity because of second year running back Marlon Mack. Once the 2017 fourth-round pick recovered from a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of action for four games early in the 2018 season, he was one of the NFL's most effective ball-carriers. Over the last 11 games of the season, Mack was fourth in the NFL with 874 rushing yards. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and had nine rushing touchdowns during this span.

Mack set a single-game Colts playoff record with 148 rushing yards against a formidable Texans defense. The Texans gave up 82.7 yards per game on the ground during the regular season. It was third in the NFL. Houston was tops in the league limiting opponents to 3.4 yards per carry. No player was able to gain 100 yards on the ground in a game versus the Texans until Mack. Finding another wide receiver to pair with T.Y. Hilton may be a bigger priority than making a run at Bell.

Bell is the type of offensive weapon Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who is the main power-broker in the organization, would love to have. Lynch's contract is expiring. The Raiders should have over $70 million of cap room because of Gruden's drastic roster overhaul last year.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst is much more aggressive in free agency than Ted Thompson, his predecessor, ever was. He will be armed with nearly $50 million of cap space. A lack of guaranteed money in Pittsburgh's offer was an issue for Bell. Green Bay structures veteran contracts like Pittsburgh does, except with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The same problem would likely exist with the Packers and make Green Bay an unappealing destination.

Final thoughts

Bell doesn't necessarily need to generate a lot of interest in free agency for a big payday. It only takes one team to view Bell as a game-changing talent, although James Connor earning a Pro Bowl berth as his replacement in Pittsburgh while making approximately 1/25th of his franchise tender doesn't necessarily help in this regard.

Bell reaching his target price or validating his decision of making nothing in a peak earning year where he reaches the break-even points with the rejected Pittsburgh offer seems like a tall order. It's more likely that Bell signs a contract with a comparable average as Gurley's $14.375 million per year where the first two years are fully guaranteed. Bell might consider this type of contract a major victory because the guaranteed money would be greater than anything Pittsburgh was ever offering him.

Former Sports Agent

Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Before his tenure at Premier, Joel worked... Full Bio

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