What is Le’Veon Bell worth to the Steelers?

Bell is the most valuable running back in the league. Is that worth a long-term deal?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
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Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the exclusive franchise tag, which means he’ll be the highest paid running back in the NFL. For one year.

Bell’s $12.1 million franchise tender has yet to be signed — a leverage move unhappy players make to sit out of the early part of training camp without being fined — two things are clear after Monday’s deadline came and went: Bell will sign his tender, and he will play the 2017 season for the Steelers.

Where he goes after that depends on how each side sees his value and defines his worth.

Value and worth aren’t necessarily the same thing.

When Bell told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, “[i]t’s a little frustrating, but it’s a business. I’m not in a rush to sign for something I’m not valued at if I feel I’m worth more than what they are offering me,” he’s conflating what he thinks he’s worth with what the market will bear for someone at his position. Only, they aren’t the same.

Bell went on to say that he knows the running back market is down — the value of the position is not what it once was — but he won’t be responsible for taking a contract that makes the position any less valuable.

“The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” Bell said. “We do everything: We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”

It’s a noble cause, and the rest of the league’s player pool (especially those at his position) should thank him, but he’s going to have to sit out an entire season if he really wants to re-set the market for running backs in the NFL. And even then, it might not matter.

The de-valuation of RBs

As the game has become more widespread, the quarterback position has managed to somehow increase in value. It seems more than ever, having a great quarterback and great receivers can be the difference between being a contender and an also-ran. Having a great running back in a spread-offense era is more of a luxury than a necessity. At least in terms of how they’re getting paid.

Case in point: 14 quarterbacks in the NFL — more than half the starters in the league — make more than $20 million per year, with 22 signal callers earning $15 million or more.

Antonio Brown, the NFL’s highest-paid receiver, makes an average of $17 million per season. Yes, he also returns kicks, but he’s paid for his receiving prowess and over the last three seasons, he’s had 391 offensive touches. He’s been targeted 528 times over the last three years in the passing game, with an additional 10 rushes in 47 regular season contests.

Bell, by comparison, has 846 offensive touches over the last three years. He’s been given the ball or targeted in the passing game 889 times over the last three seasons, and that’s in just 34 games!

You want to talk worth? That’s worth.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
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Bell is different that most other running backs. He’s proven he’s too good of a receiver to be paid like just a back, but he’s too good of a runner to convert to receiver full time and get paid like a top wideout.

Bell’s skill set is unique in the NFL. He’s an every-down running back who has the size and pass-catching ability of a starting wide receiver. He is like two players on the field at once and, if truly being paid for his value, he should be the highest paid skill-position player in the NFL. But the Steelers can’t just line up with 10 guys and pay Bell twice the salary because he can both run and catch. I mean…they could, but they won’t. And given how positions are valued in the NFL, that’s basically what Bell is asking them to do.

So … what’s Bell worth?

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers
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Bell was the offensive MVP of the Steelers two of the last three seasons. So if we’re talking value, those voting think he’s as valuable as Brown. Ben Roethlisberger, for what it’s worth (pun), hasn’t won team MVP since 2009.

But Bell had a team-friendly contract the last few seasons, so the Steelers could afford to pay two offensive lineman more than $10 million and give Brown that lucrative contract extension. Roethlisberger is making just north of $18 million this coming season, but he’s slated to make more than $23 million each of the next two years, if he doesn’t restructure his deal or retire. In a salary cap world, that’s a ton of money to spend on the offense, with close to $70 million going to five players. 

The salary cap this season is $167 million, which means that close to 40 percent of the team’s salary is going to about 10 percent of the roster. And yet, when compared to other players at his position, it would seem ludicrous for the Steelers to let Bell go after this season.

Does Bell’s value make him worth a long-term deal?

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
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The Steelers have rarely, throughout the history of the NFL, overpaid players. They’ve let Hall of Famers walk rather than give out contracts they didn’t think were in the best interest of the franchise before. So Bell could very well be in his last year or, if the team opts to franchise him again next year, one of his final two in black and gold.

And yet for all the reasons that seems nuts, letting Bell leave also make some sense. Bell has amassed more than 6,000 yards from scrimmage and more than 30 touchdowns in just 47 career games, but because of his history of injuries and suspensions, he’s only played 47 games in four seasons.

Bell averaged 119 yards in three playoff games in 2016, but in four seasons in the league, he’s only played in three playoff games, all in 2016.

When he’s on the field, he’s nearly unstoppable. But for a guy to get the kind of guaranteed money Bell is seeking, the Steelers might want to make sure he’ll actually be on the field. At least more than he has been.

Ian Rapoport of NFL.com said the hang-up in contract talks was regarding guaranteed money beyond the first year of a new contract. Bell is worth top dollar to the Steelers now. But longterm, given how much the Steelers would have to invest in a guy who hasn’t shown he can stay on the field, they may not think he’ll continue to be as valuable as he’s been.