The Jets were bidding against themselves when they signed Le’Veon Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million contract in March of 2019. Just two months after that transaction, the GM who signed Bell to that contract—Mike Maccagnan—was fired.
That was the first indication that the marriage between Bell and the Jets might not be for the long haul. It was followed by other escalating strains, like the training-camp disagreement between Bell and Adam Gase about the health of Bell’s hamstrings, and ultimately Bell’s liking tweets criticizing Gase’s usage of him after Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals. Tuesday night, absent a trading partner for the contract that only the Jets were willing to give 19 short months ago, the team announced it had made the decision to release Bell. He ends his Jets career with just 863 rushing yards and four total TDs in 17 games.
It was a forgettable chapter—one all parties involved no doubt wish had gone differently.
As for the Jets, these are the decisions that keep the franchise in a perpetual state of underachieving, borne out of errors like misreading the market, overpaying for a big-name splash player and allowing a GM who is soon to be fired and not entirely on the same page as the new head coach to lead free agency.
As for Bell, he left one of the league’s most stable organizations, an annual playoff contender, for a team that is pretty much the opposite, and he did little to change its fortunes. Bell set out for what he billed as a fresh start—one that ultimately backfired. But what he wanted more than that, leading up to and following his 2018 season holdout, was to make a point about the value of running backs, whose market cratered to the point that the franchise-tag number for his position actually dropped between 2017 and ’18.
To do so, he made some bold moves, many of which did not pay off personally. After playing on the franchise tag in ’17, and being tagged again by the Steelers in ’18, he told his agent to ask for $17 million per year from the team—hoping to land at $15M. He rejected what he said was the Steelers’ final offer of a five year, $70 million deal ($14 million per year) that summer. He never signed the $14.5 million franchise tender and instead sat out the entire ’18 season.
The contract Bell signed with the Jets fell short of the average-per-year of Pittsburgh’s best offer. But as per the Steelers’ policy of not offering future guarantees in veteran deals, the only fully guaranteed money in that proposal was a $10 million signing bonus. The Jets’ deal included $27 million fully guaranteed, a record at the position. (And, not to belabor the point, that was money no one but the Jets was offering).
“Receivers make [roughly] $19 million per year—why can’t I make 17?” Bell said a few days after signing with the Jets. “The fact that I put that number out there, that opened it up for Todd [Gurley]. … I [took] the bullet. [We] can’t sit here just taking what y’all [offer]. It’s gonna go: 15, then 16. . . . Then at some point it’s gonna stop and 10, 12 years from now there’s going to have to be another Le’Veon Bell who’s gonna take a stand.”
Gurley signed for $15 million per year with the Rams in the summer of '18, not long after Bell had been hoping for that number (he's since been released from that contract). Now, three running backs are playing on contracts at or above that threshold: Christian McCaffrey ($16M/year), Alvin Kamara ($15M/year) and Ezekiel Elliott ($15M/year). And McCaffrey also topped out the running back market with about $30 million fully guaranteed in his April 2020 extension. In September, when NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport tweeted “suddenly, there is a real RB market,” Bell quote-tweeted the message with a wink emoji.
Bell hoped to revitalize the running back market. You can second-guess the decisions he made, but he played a role in that happening. And after 17 largely forgettable games with the Jets, and the $27 million that was fully guaranteed to him, he’s now moving on.
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