Le’Veon Bell Is Right, and So Are the Steelers

A deeper look at the running back market after Bell and the Steelers failed to reach an agreement for a second straight year, and what that means for David Johnson, Todd Gurley and other backs. Plus, mailbag questions on the best rookie RBs not named Saquon Barkley, Roquan Smith’s rookie of the year candidacy, some remaining free agents and much more
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It was about six weeks after the Cowboys had taken Ezekiel Elliott with the draft’s fourth overall pick, and at the time the idea of going in on a tailback that high in the draft felt a little like ordering a burger at a steakhouse. Elliott was just the second back taken in top five over an eight-year span, the other being Browns bust Trent Richardson. COO Stephen Jones did his best to explain.

“What Urban Meyer told Jason [Garrett] was, ‘As good as he is with the ball, he’s the best guy I’ve coached without the ball,” Jones told me then. “That’s big for Tony [Romo]— he’s there on checkdowns, he can stay in and block. And Zeke was a flanker in high school, so we can move him out there, too. He’s someone the defense has to respect from the tailback position.”

That was one piece of the puzzle for Dallas. The other, discussed internally, was this: In the world created by the 2011 CBA, they’d get Elliott’s prime while he was still on an affordable rookie deal. The Cowboys looked at it the way they’d view a stock. Do you buy when it’s high and incur risk, or do you buy when it’s trending up? The answer was as simple as it sounds.

Therein lies the two sides of the Steelers-Le’Veon Bell divide. On one hand, Bell is right. He is more than a running back. The new prototype is a 230-pound, three-down player, and Bell was that before any of the others—Elliott and Todd Gurley and David Johnson and Saquon Barkley and Joe Mixon—came into the league. On the other hand, if you’re Pittsburgh, history tells you that you’ve probably seen the bulk of his prime.

We’ll get to your mail in a minute, but we’re starting in Pittsburgh this week, where the Steelers and Bell failed, for the second year in a row, to reach a long-term agreement. It’s a rich topic. My first thought on the whole ordeal is the one above: Bell isn’t crazy to think the way he’s thinking. The Steelers aren’t crazy to proceed with caution. Here are five more for you to chew on …

This won’t help Gurley, Elliott or David Johnson. Back in 2012 there were seven running backs on long-term deals making $8.5 million per or more (and Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson topped $13 million per). Six years later there are none. Most positions have gone forward financially, with a steadily rising cap. Running back has gone pretty far backward.

Part of it is the talent coming into the league—only four backs went in the first round from 2011 to ’14. Part of it is the increasing feeling that the serviceable players at the position are easy to find. Part of it is the aforementioned feeling that when a back’s rookie deal is up, he’s well into his prime, without much upside going forward.

And all that makes the position’s recent resurgence all the more interesting, since there will be a bunch of guys who would seem to be worth big bucks looking to get paid soon. Bell was a test case for the rest of those looking for a market correction. “What Le’Veon’s trying to do is get it all back with one at-bat,” said one prominent agent. “You’re not going to get it all back in one at-bat.”

That leaves the next two up, Gurley and Johnson, and their teams without a real long-term framework elsewhere to work off of.

Franchise tag rules haven’t helped either. And this isn’t just about the tag. It’s about how it’s split among positions. Guards and centers, like new Jaguar Andrew Norwell and new Buc Ryan Jensen, benefit from what franchise left tackles get, because offensive linemen are clustered together. Same goes for off-ball linebackers like new Jet Avery Williamson who are grouped with pass-rushing hybrids.

Conversely, safeties don’t benefit from what corners make. And backs and tight ends aren’t seeing a direct windfall from the explosion in wide receiver salaries. It’s no wonder, then, that those three positions—safety, running back, tight end—have the lowest tag numbers, outside of kickers and punters. If Bell were subject to a “skill position” figure, Pittsburgh would have had a decision to make last year, and Bell likely would have hit the market this year.

This might work out for Pittsburgh. I asked an exec on Wednesday how his team viewed the life span of a tailback. He said you should expect to see a guy age after four to five seasons at 200 to 250 carries. Bell currently has four seasons of 244 or more carries (regular season-only), and another with 113 carries. He also has 312 career catches.

Our exec’s ballpark figure is somewhat arbitrary, and it’s possible that Bell is a latter-day Curtis Martin (who averaged 320 carries and 51 receptions per season in years six through 10 of his career). But after another year as the Steelers’ bellcow, how much more should realistically be expected of Bell? History tells us the end might not be that far off.

This already worked out for Bell. Last year, he got $12.12 million on the tag—and the running back number actually went down in 2018 (that never happens). When you add the $14.54 million he’ll make this year, he gets $26.64 million over two years. That gives him an APY that beats Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (the highest-paid back on a long-term deal) by more than $5 million.

After that, Bell will be free at 27, much earlier than he would’ve been had he signed a deal two years ago. This, of course, is providing that he stays healthy and maintains his accustomed level of play.

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Sammy Watkins did a number on the market. Credit to Watkins and his agent, Tory Dandy, for scoring a three-year, $48 million deal in K.C. One of the effects of the rising cap and the franchise tag is that second-tier players have gotten bonkers money, and Watkins is Exhibit A. And the trickle-up since has been clear: More productive offensive players are asking, Where’s mine?

It has affected Odell Beckham Jr. It has affected Julio Jones. It has affected Rob Gronkowski. And it has affected Bell. We’ve already seen another player, Brandin Cooks, benefit. Plenty of others are in line to.

The funding rule is a hidden problem in plain sight. Pittsburgh is one of a number of teams that, as policy, won’t fully guarantee base salaries in future years, using rolling guarantees instead and cutting off an element of a player’s long-term security. The reason why teams have such policies? An archaic funding rule that remains on the NFL’s books—we explained it in March.

Basically, every fully guaranteed dollar in every contract must be funded by the team to the league, and clubs want to avoid the cash flow issues such a process can create. Why is the rule there, you ask? Well, back in the 1930s, the Boston Redskins might have had issues staying solvent, so the funding rule assured that players would be paid. And now? It’s used mostly as a crutch by teams to avoid fully guaranteeing deals. If there wasn’t a funding rule, teams would lose their reason for such a policy. And they’d be forced to show players how they really felt about them, and their staying power, more directly.

Now, on to the mail …

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Andrew Carrigan (@AndyCarrigan13):Do you think Roquan Smith can win DROY as an inside LB in a 3-4 system?

Yes. And if I had to pick a Defensive Rookie of the Year right now—and this would break Ohio State’s two-year stranglehold on the award (Sorry, Denzel Ward)—it would be Smith, whom the Bears took with the eigth overall pick. We’ve seen players at that spot (San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, New England’s Jerod Mayo and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly) assimilate to the pro game quickly in the recent past, and win the award. And I think the Georgia phenom is on that level.

As for playing in a 3-4, let’s not forget that Willis and NaVorro Bowman didn’t exactly struggle to find the spotlight playing for current Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio when Fangio was in San Francisco. And if you want to add to that, word was that Fangio wasn’t exactly hiding his affection for Smith at Georgia’s pro day in March, nor was he shy about his feelings for the Butkus winner before the draft.

Colts Club (@Colts_Club):Any update on free agents like [Bashaud] Breeland, [Tre] Boston, [Kenny] Vaccaro, etc.?

Part of it with Breeland—who’s had his off-field issues but is a solid talent—has been his ability to pass a physical after suffering an infection from a cut in his foot, which led the Panthers to void their deal with him in March. I can’t imagine he’ll be unemployed for long once he’s healthy.

The situation with safeties like Boston and Vaccaro is a bit more perplexing. The best explanation I’ve gotten is that more teams feel they can get by with middling talents at those positions, and have decided to allocate even more resources to the premium spots (corner, pass rusher). Buffalo, which got great production out of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer last year, is a good example of that.

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Drew Goodman (@drewg03):Will more teams go the run/pass option or no-huddle offense?

Those elements can’t be everything you do, Drew, but yes, I’d expect that you’ll continue to see coaches weaponizing tempo and college-inspired option looks. The important thing for those coaches will be, as it always is, to keep innovating, because a lot of teams spent time this offseason with their peers at the college level learning how to best combat concepts like the ones the Eagles rode to a championship.

The cool thing is that I think this is as open-minded as I’ve ever seen the NFL when it comes to embracing ideas from lower levels of football. Those concepts are often inspired by college and high school programs forced to be creative to keep up with opponents flush with superior resources. That means more option game, more spacing, more tempo, more everything. It’s also why Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is so popular with NFL types these days.

Jakob Adelhard (@j_kristensen):Which rookie RB (other than Saquon Barkley) will have the best season … i.e. most yards/TDs and/or start the soonest?

It’s not hard to find NFL teams who love their rookie backs. This class might not be quite as good as the historically loaded 2017 group, but it’s not far off. I’ll give you Washington’s Derrius Guice, who’s already won over coaches with his passion for football, his vision, his patience, his explosion and his ability to catch the ball. Add in the creative run concepts I expect Jay Gruden to employ with Alex Smith at QB, and Guice is an awesome spot.

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If you want a couple darkhorses who I think will have opportunity (which is a big piece of this): Keep an eye on Detroit’s Kerryon Johnson and Indy’s Nyheim Hines.

Bucky (@RsBuckyBarnes):Are the Titans ready to take the next step forward toward being an AFC juggernaut? The roster looks well-balanced after the draft/free agency.

I like what Jon Robinson has built over three offseasons, I love his hire of Mike Vrabel as head coach, and I think the team has a really good shot at taking a big step forward after making the playoffs last year. I’m going to give you two things that need to happen for them to take that next step.

First (and obviously), Marcus Mariota has to stay healthy. If he can, I think new OC Matt LeFleur can do for him what Sean McVay did for Jared Goff last year. Second, the production of four young, high draft picks is vital. Receiver Corey Davis flashed his potential in January. The Titans need more from him. And Adoree’ Jackson, Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry have to help take a pretty good defense up a notch.

The Mooch (@The_Mooch_):Are you taking gambling questions (yet)? Who do you believe improves the most from last year to this year (win total)?

Absolutely, I’m taking gambling questions—and we’re going to have some pretty cool gambling-related content at The MMQB this season, so stay tuned for that.

There are two obvious answers to your question, in my mind. The first one is the Browns. They were 0-16, so there’s plenty of room to grow. And the interesting thing is that you can’t find a position group on their roster that hasn’t been addressed pretty aggressively. The other is San Francisco, just because the Niners were 6-10 last year and finished so strong.

And since I’m assuming this is a question related to betting on win totals, I’ll go there too. Looking at the current numbers from Odds Shark, I like the Falcons to go over on nine wins.

See you guys next week!

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