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Le’Veon Bell becomes a Jet, reinforces the plight of NFL running backs

Le’Veon Bell made a bold gamble by sitting out last season, and it backfired in free agency. (Don Wright/Associated Press)
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What was principle worth to Le’Veon Bell? It ended up costing him millions of dollars, and if taking a stand against the Pittsburgh Steelers mattered to him more than the dough, more power to him — he can rightfully, stubbornly claim victory. Strictly as a financial strategy, Bell’s season-long holdout failed. If you wanted to see a bold power play rewarded, another success to add to the disparate cases of Kirk Cousins and Antonio Brown, you were left disappointed after midnight Wednesday, when the biggest name in NFL free agency reportedly came off the board.

Bell agreed to sign with the New York Jets for $52.5 million over four years, according to NFL Network. Bell’s deal could reach $61 million with incentives and includes $35 million guaranteed, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, and those guarantees were higher than many in the league expected he would receive.

In New York, Bell will become the best offensive weapon around second-year quarterback Sam Darnold after holding out all of last season in an unprecedented attempt to negotiate a new contract. In the fall, Pro Football Talk reported that the Steelers offered Bell $47 million over three years, with $20 million guaranteed. Bell surrendered $14.5 million, all guaranteed, by not signing the franchise tender Pittsburgh offered and sitting out the season.

From a purely monetary outlook, Bell’s decision backfired, which is what most everyone in the game expected. The Sports & Entertainment Group, Bell’s agency, “has the hardest job in the NFL,” a fellow agent said before the start of free agency. Bell had a threshold he needed to meet to validate his year-long hiatus, but the demand for running backs — especially 27-year-olds with more than 1,500 career touches — left no realistic chance he could.

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Bell reportedly had about $15 million per year on the table in a multiyear contract extension, and by simply accepting the franchise tag, Bell would have earned $14.5 million last year, as opposed to nothing by not playing. Now, with the Jets, he will have an average annual salary of $13.1 million.

At the time, Bell turning his offers down seemed misguided. Todd Gurley reset the running back market late last summer when he signed a four-year, $57.5 million extension to stay with the Los Angeles Rams, with $45 million guaranteed. Bell may have been miffed at not receiving a bigger deal — or at least the same offer — given his unique receiving ability and the dynamic role he played in Pittsburgh’s offense.

But Gurley is three years younger, and NFL teams simply do not guarantee top-of-the-market money to running backs for their age-30 seasons, even those as uniquely talented as Bell. There are too many cheap, viable options, and the position has too short of a shelf life. It’s not a fair proposition for running backs, but it’s the reality they face.

Brown, Bell’s old Steelers teammate, proved that using leverage, in the form of unconventional (to put it kindly) behavior, to escape an unwanted situation can work for a star. Cousins showed that signing the franchise tag can be used to a player’s advantage, too; he signed it twice en route to $84 million guaranteed in free agency. Bell’s saga shows running backs do not possess the same power.

By holding out, Bell proved his resolve to the Steelers and prevented a season of wear and tear and potential injury. Those gains provide little solace to Bell’s running back peers, many of whom saw his move as a stand for the entire position. Even if Bell made a mistake, it’s hard not to have sympathy for him and anyone else who plays a punishing position.

“The ability he brings to that team, I understand,” running back Adrian Peterson said last season when asked about Bell’s holdout. “Someone has to stand up and say, ‘Show me what I’m worth.’ ”

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Unfortunately for Bell, when it came time for the league to show him what an elite running back is worth in free agency, he found out how the league views his position. Even in a league with more than $1 billion in available cap space, Bell couldn’t find even one team to validate his belief he was worth a contract in line with the highest-paid non-quarterbacks.

The Indianapolis Colts, who showed no apparent interest in Bell, provide an example of how teams view running backs in free agency. The Colts use three running backs, Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, all of whom are entering their second or third year, were drafted in the fourth or fifth round and make less than $1 million per season. The Colts had nearly $100 million available.

“If we see a player — even though if we have a good player at the position — if we think, hey, this guy’s the one to put us over the top, we’ll make the move,” General Manager Chris Ballard said at the NFL scouting combine.

The message to running backs: Your job can be done on the cheap, by players who have fresh legs that teams view as interchangeable. Mack averaged 4.7 yards per carry last year. In 2017, the last season he played, Bell averaged 4.0.

Bell is a unique talent, a powerful, patient runner who possesses the skills of a wideout. The Jets are improved for signing him, and Bell will be a rich man. But neither side comes out a clear winner. Bell did not receive the kind of deal he envisioned. The Jets played at the top of the market at a position most teams shy away from out of durability concerns. It would be nice to simply celebrate the arrival of a wonderful talent on a new team, but that’s not the state of affairs for NFL running backs.

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