Monday was the deadline for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their starting running back Le’Veon Bell to come to terms on a long-term contract or else Bell would have to play the 2017 season under the $12.12 million franchise tag. With no deal made, Bell and the Steelers must wait until 2018 to restart negotiations, per NFL rules.
Bell’s bet on himself could make him the league’s highest-paid running back next season, but it will also have a ripple effect on other would-be free agent backs, including the Cleveland Browns’ Isaiah Crowell, who is currently on a one-year, second-round restricted free agent tender paying him $2.746 million.
According to the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the Steelers made a somewhat generous offer to Bell that the back nonetheless turned down:
#Steelers' offer to Le'Veon Bell averaged over $12M per, with $30M in first 2 years, $42M over 3, per sources. Decided to play on $12.1M tag— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) July 18, 2017
But as Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio points out, these numbers also do not tell the entire story. The terms the Steelers leaked, via Pelissero, conveniently don’t include how much money was guaranteed, how those guarantees were structured and whether or not those guarantees were as high as—or higher—than what Bell would make with two straight years on the franchise tag ($12.12 million this year, plus $14.52 million next year, for a total of $26.63 million). It also sheds no light on whether the Steelers chose to step out of their usual contract structure that typically limits guaranteed cash to the first year only.
Now, Bell wasn’t entirely wrong to assume that he will be worth even more than this, whether to the Steelers or to another team as an open-market free agent. Since 2014, he has twice led the league in rushing attempts, overall touches and all-purpose yards and has three times led the league in yards per rushing attempts.
But he’s also suffered injuries along the way (and is currently recovering from groin surgery), something that heavily influences the kinds of paydays backs receive. Also, Bell is basing his value off of his heavy usage, usage that has him averaging 283 touches per season as both a running back and a receiver and that not only opens him up to more chances for injury but also to wearing out.
Bell’s average of 128.8 total yards per game is a result of that heavy use, but if the Steelers—or any team—want to make him a long-term fixture of their offense, that usage rate will have to come down, thus taking his yardage down with it. Another big year like he had in 2016, though, with 1,268 regular-season rushing yards and 616 receiving, would still keep his market value high.
So, what does this mean for Crowell?
It’s impossible to say that Crowell, as a player, is a similar to Bell. While certainly settling into his role as the Browns’ bell-cow back, with 198 carries yielding 952 yards and seven scores a year ago, he’s not as involved in the receiving game as Bell, with just 40 catches for 319 yards a season ago and 68 for 588 yards over the last three years. His career average of 59.5 yards per game is half that of Bell’s. Plus, his pass-blocking is not comparable, with Pro Football Focus ranking Bell fifth in the league among backs in that skill for 2016 (with a grade of 83.0), versus a 35.5 grade for Crowell.
Still, Crowell’s needle as a runner is trending upward, his usage as a receiver is also increasing and potentially Cleveland’s upgrades on the offensive line will result in better pass-protection out of Crowell and better skill-position production from him, overall. And should 2017 prove to be a good year for Crowell—and also be one for Bell—the way Bell’s hypothetical new contract could shift the running back market will certainly help Crowell earn a few extra (million) dollars in the future.
Startling numbers considering state of veteran RB market. Lacy/Peterson/Lynch/Charles/L.Murray all signed for roughly $3M on one year deals. https://t.co/Ylen2OI5bf— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) July 18, 2017
Though we don’t—and maybe won’t ever—know the minute details of the Steelers’ contract offer to Bell, we do know that its average per-year value was $12 million. While that doesn’t mean that Bell would have been set to make $12 million per year, it does mean that his averages would be the highest in the league at the position by $4 million. It also means that the trend for relatively cheap, one-year deals being paid for veteran running backs could become a thing of the past, at least temporarily (the Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, a similarly-styled player to Bell, is also on his way to a long-term contract in the next year or so).
Further, the league-wide salary cap could jump another $10 million per team in 2018. And the Browns have over $50 million in cap space they can carry over to the following season. If Crowell has a good season and Bell gets paid the money he’s looking for next year, the tide could rise enough that Crowell could see a contract that would, in 2017, average $3 million per year suddenly become as valuable as $4 million or more.
Granted, the details of a 2018 deal for Bell—and its attendant guarantee structure—would impact the design of Crowell’s hypothetical new deal more so than the contract the Steelers offered Bell this summer, but it does offer a road map that could lead to Crowell’s market value taking a sharp turn upward when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season.