Less than a week ago, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley was complaining to the media that NFL teams “don’t want to pay running backs” after Le’Veon Bell had rejected the Pittsburgh Steelers latest offer. However, despite his comments to the press, it turns out Gurley was actually in the middle of his own contract negotiations on a record-setting deal.
As news emerged of new four-year extension worth $60 million, a contract that came with a signing bonus rumored to be worth $20 million and guarantees projected to be worth as much as $45 million, Gurley was not the only one celebrating.
✊ ✊ ✊ yeah todd https://t.co/To0v91y9T7— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 24, 2018
lol and ppl thought I was trippin?...— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 24, 2018
not mad at all, I’m actually extremely happy to be honest https://t.co/CuGiYYAfKo— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) July 25, 2018
As is often the case in the wake of a contract signing, social media is awash with “expert” opinion about what this deal means for Bell and the figure he will be able to command in free agency now Gurley has reset the market. Before anyone gets too excited about the extension the Rams’ running back has signed, it might be wise to wait for the real numbers behind the deal to see the light of day before getting carried away.
It is hard to believe the contract actually includes $45 million fully guaranteed, and it is more likely these guarantees are, at least in part, guaranteed for injury only. It would not be a surprise to learn they would only activate if Gurley reached certain milestones in the years before as well. Time will tell in this regard, but it is also worth noting that almost $12 million of this reported guarantee will include the money he was already owed before the extension, money that he was already effectively guaranteed.
That being said, it would be impossible to argue that this contract has not set an new ceiling for running backs given the average per year Gurley will earn over the length of the contract. However, Bell may not profit from this deal quite as much as he hopes when he eventually signs with a new team in 2019.
While sensible football fans would argue that Bell is the best back in the league, that is not a universally held belief. Strangely, there are also plenty of football observers who rate Gurley as the league’s best at his position. Set to turn 24-years-old in less than a week, the Rams’ star runner has barely reached his peak. Having missed just three games due to injury to date, he appears to have a long career ahead of him with limited wear and tear on his body after just three seasons.
When Bell hits the open market next year, he will be a 27-year-old back who has played six season and seen more than his fair share of carries. Two knee injuries and one foot injury have cost him 14 games and two suspensions another five. Not to mention a habit of using social media in a way that some might call ill-advised.
If Bell believes that Gurley’s new contract will be the baseline for his negotiations in the future, there is a good chance he could be disappointed. NFL teams pay a player for what they will do, not what they have already done, and in 2019, it would be hard to argue that Bell offered more long-term value to a club at that stage of his career than the Rams’ running back. In a hypothetical world where both Gurley and Bell were free agents next year at the same time, which player do you think would be the most in demand?
Bell has already predicted he will have the best year of his career in 2018, an effort that will require him playing all 16 games and likely seeing more touches than ever before to beat his previous numbers. Should he achieve that milestone, he will be coming off a heavy-usage year heading into free agency. Fall short of his goals, and Bell is in danger of being eclipsed by other backs in the NFL. If Gurley leads the league in rushing or just outperforms Bell, it will undoubtedly be held against him in negotiations. To be paid like the best, the Steelers’ star runner will need to prove he is the best once again.
In 2017, Gurley rushed for more yards than Bell on fewer carries, scored more touchdowns on the ground and through the air and also recorded more receiving yards off fewer catches. Should that scenario repeat itself this season, convincing teams that he is worth more than Gurley will not be a straightforward task for Bell and his agent.
With multiple teams competing for his services, it is not difficult to believe that the demand for Bell’s signature will drive up the price, but it is hard to imagine it will reach the $17 million level he is rumored to want. Gurley will earn a total of almost $72 million over the next six years from Los Angeles, when you include the money he was already due to earn over the next two seasons, Bell was offered $70 million over five.
There are few teams in the league with the cap flexibility of the Rams, one of the youngest teams in the NFL and featuring a quarterback on his rookie deal. While I still would not bet against Bell resetting the market for running backs in 2019, it would not surprise me if free agency was ultimately less generous than he expected either.