Le'Veon Bell is going to get paid, just not in 2018.
Bell picked a path of great resistance but little risk during the 2018 season. Bell acknowledged he had a job title, running back, in a big business, the NFL, which wasn’t providing him the paycheck or financial security that he desired.
Unlike so many before him, Bell did something about it — something very significant. While taking criticism from coaches, teammates, media members and fans, Bell exercised every ounce of leverage he had to get the pay he thought he deserved. He lived through the cliché: the NFL is a business. So many say it — few players make it true. And barring a freak accident, he’ll get pretty darn close to what he desires.
He risked jeopardizing his friendships with his teammates and coaches. He risked jeopardizing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff run. (Imagine if James Conner wasn’t any good.) He did that and much more to get the impending paycheck, likely coming from the New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts or another team with an inordinate amount of cap space opening up during then 2019 offseason. That’s how Bell can make his millions, likely in the same ballpark as David Johnson. A guess: Bell should sign a four-year, $60 million deal with $30 million guaranteed at signing.
If Bell was going to show up, then the only sensical time would have been at the start of the season, when he could have made every cent of his franchise tag salary. An argument could be made that he should have showed up for day one of training camp while taking out an insurance policy to prevent him from the guaranteed money he hopes to get this offseason in a major deal. That way, Bell would spend a fraction of his $14 million franchise tag on the insurance, while enduring the risk of injury with the knowledge that he’d be mostly covered. But if an injury struck, he’d take the insurance check and enter free agency in 2019 with dwindling interest from teams at the moment in his career when he can best maximize his talent. As he’ll be 27 years old when the 2019 season starts, there is no better time for Bell to earn. In fact, he would have been better off at 25 or 26 years old, which is why he was so frustrated by getting tagged twice.
Instead, Bell bypassed the risk. He said good riddance to the team which screwed him over two years in a row. He chose to hold out into the regular season, and when he hit the deadline, there was zero point in showing. He stood to earn a small sum for the second half of the season — not to mention the fact that he’d be re-entering a locker room of players that seemed to hate his guts. Heck, coach Mike Tomlin might even bench Bell.
Instead, Bell sat on his value that he established in 2017, when he was one of the most productive running backs as a runner and pass-catcher. This offseason, Bell can pursue a contract that gives him the most guaranteed money ever for a running back. And while he may not finish that contract (which is typical for most NFL players), he’ll have the luxury of creating a deal that potentially sets up his family for generations.
His agent can sell the fact that he’s returning fresh from a season of rest (but not sloth). Instead of taking 300 touches, almost a certainty if he’d played in 2018, Bell took zero. He gets the rare luxury of recovery at a position where that’s typically not possible, which could help lengthen his career and increase his earning power into his 30s. Retired running back John Riggins, for example, sat out of the 1980 season in a contract dispute, and went on to play until he was 36. Ricky Williams, who missed two seasons, played until he was 34. (As a point of comparison, the relentless Frank Gore is 35.)
Bell did what was best for him, a rarity for NFL players who typically bend to the will of teams. He made the right decision, and should get paid handsomely for it in 2019.