Why Le’Veon Bell was right to decline the Steelers’ contract offer

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Update: With news that Rams RB Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million extension, with $45 million guaranteed, Le’Veon Bell’s decision to spurn the Steelers offer is looking better and better. Something he’s well aware of, as evidenced by this tweet fired off in the wake of the Gurley news.

The way we talk about and report NFL contracts sucks. There’s no more artful way of saying it than that. If you want proof, look no further than the situation between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell, who just turned down a five-year, $70 million contract offer … an offer that was NOTHING like it seems, and one that he was wise to decline.

Establishing the narrative

We have to start with how the news cycle unfolded on this one, because it’s a pretty common format for big-name players trying to reach a deal with teams.

Before the deadline Monday, speculation about a potential holdout into the season went around, via comments made by Adam Schefter.

The 4 p.m. deadline for franchise-tagged players and teams to reach a long-term deal passes with no new contract for Bell. Later that day, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport scoops the offer Bell got from the Steelers, and it sure looks like a doozy.

You can guess which side put that out there, with nothing more than the top-line details of the contract juxtaposed with the top-line details of last year’s offer. That information makes it seem like the Steelers put a premium on Bell and picture him as cornerstone of the roster through the prime of his career (Bell is 26).

The next morning, Schefter sends out a tweet about the yearly average that the Steelers’ offer would have paid him.

Armed with that information, the narrative’s set against Bell. It’s reported after the Monday afternoon deadline that Bell will not hold out during the regular season. He may skip camp like he did last year, but not any games during the season.

Almost 24 hours later, we get a clearer picture of the offer from the Steelers.

Ah ha. And with that, Bell’s decision make a lot more sense.

Why Bell made the right decision

The franchise tag is going to pay him a fully guaranteed salary of $14.5 million this year. Would you rather have that or a deal that only guarantees you $10 million? Even with the possibility of making up to $70 million over five years, the smart move is to go with the bird in the hand here, in a sport where careers are already short.

If Bell had agreed to this deal, the Steelers could have released him after this season. The team would be left with an unspecified amount of dead cap space for 2019, and Bell would walk away with less money than what he was guaranteed to make with the franchise tag and nowhere near the deal’s $70 million possibility.

Bell choose to take the guaranteed money this year and add it to the deal he’ll get as a free agent next year, giving him more guaranteed money than what the Steelers offer would give him.

“Is it safe to say that he would get a guarantee that’s more traditional for NFL contracts … the answer to that is a resounding yes,” Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, said in an interview with the NFL Network on Tuesday.

“There are only two teams in the league that don’t guarantee beyond the first year, the Steelers being one of them,” Bakari added.

The highest-paid running back in the league, LeSean McCoy, got more than $18 million guaranteed at signing in 2015. Devonta Freeman got more than $17 million guaranteed at signing from the Falcons last year, and the 49ers gave Jerick McKinnon $11.7 million this year.

It’s safe to say that if Bell stays healthy, he’s bound to get a guaranteed money similar to Freeman or McCoy … just for signing a deal as a free agent next spring. And even if the Steelers tagged him for a third straight season, he’d be due over $17.4 million next year, fully guaranteed.

The Steelers’ offer, with the potential of $33 million over the first two years of the year, was only about a million dollars more than what he’d make if he got tagged this year and next.

The insidious nature of how we talk about NFL contracts

Had Bell signed that five-year, $70 million deal with the Steelers, it’s unlikely he would have seen it reach its natural terminus. It’s rare for an NFL player to actually play out his entire contract, even the superstars.

Out of all the NFL contracts signed this year, there’s only one where the player will see the full value of it realized: Kirk Cousins’ three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings. (He chose to negotiate the shorter deal too.)

So whenever you see a report about a player offered or agreeing to an x-year, y-dollar deal, just know it’s bullshit, and in some cases it’s a report that’s been weaponized as a negotiating tactic.

The average annual value has become a popular way of talking about deals. It’s handy for armchair general managers and us media types to compare financials from player to player. But like the overall picture of deal, it’s bullshit for the same reasons.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to talk about the actual value of those deals, at least not without a lot of words. Even reports that contain that other essential morsel of NFL contract reporting, the dollars guaranteed, need an asterisk. Bell’s situation leaned heavily on guaranteed money at signing. Then, there’s injury guarantees, guaranteed salary if the player’s on the roster at a certain date, and other mechanisms that mostly let teams have the final determination about the money that’s actually guaranteed for a player.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where NFL contracts are fully guaranteed. There’s a lot that goes into it, and Adam Stites did a deeper dive on that issue with a player agent after Russell Okung’s tweet storm that’s very much worth your time.

How contract offers get reported is never going to change until the CBA does in 2021, so it’s our responsibility to take everything we get with a huge dose of skepticism.

Despite all the subterfuge around the situation with Bell, he and his agent ultimately made the right decision. Though it can be hard for fans to take sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with a player striving to get the most financial value out of a career that in the best case scenarios sunsets in a player’s 30s, not to mention one that can lead to deleterious long-term health issues.

For that, you have to give the guy some credit.





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