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Le'Veon Bell's contract situation proves NFL free-agency really isn't free, even for superstars

Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is going all-in to maximize his career earnings. You really can't blame him for that.

Divisional Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

You're probably mad at superstar running back Le'Veon Bell for rejecting a five-year offer from the Steelers on Monday that would have reportedly paid him $42 million over the first three years.

Why are you mad at Bell, though?

Unless things get truly ugly between now and the beginning of the 2017 regular season, Bell will play for the Steelers to the tune of $12.1 million, as per the franchise tag the team slapped its All-Pro with earlier in the spring.

And if 2017 sees Bell continue to play at the same level he's been performing at since 2014, he'll likely be tagged for a second time and remain a Steeler in 2018, complete with a salary of roughly $14.5 million.

Bell's offer from the Steelers may have averaged $14 million over the next three seasons—including $15 million over the first two—but as has already been stated by some, nobody knows how much of that money was guaranteed.

We do know Bell will absolutely make $12.1 million next season and $14.5 after that, if he stays healthy and/or out of trouble.

When it comes right down to it, by "betting on himself," (the new buzz phrase regarding the ultra-talented running and his stance), Bell is saying, "Hey, I think I'm worth at least $26.5 million, and after I'm done making that much, I'll earn more in Pittsburgh or somewhere else."

Again, you might be mad at Bell, but why? Because he didn't sign his life away for the next half-decade?

By doing so, he would have given away all of his leverage, thanks to the nature of NFL contracts coupled with the wear and tear suffered by the average running back; Bell would have been at the mercy of the team down-the-road, had it decided it didn't want to honor the duration of the deal.

You see, when it comes to NFL free-agency, the true superstars don't have the same power that the top players in other leagues do.

Yes, Bell will just about double the salary of Bills' running back LeSean McCoy in 2017, but how do we know the former wouldn't have tripled the latter in earnings, had the former been free to shop his services to the highest bidder this season, his fifth as a professional football player and his first as an unrestricted free-agent?

Can you imagine the top free-agents in other professional sports leagues being hindered by something like a franchise tag?

Three years ago, Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers was one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball. He was also a free-agent, but despite approaching the age of 30, Scherzer was able to cash in on his talents and signed a seven-year, $210 million dollar contract with the Washington Nationals.

The best part?

Thanks to the nature of MLB deals, Scherzer's contract is fully-guaranteed, and he'll be paid every cent of it through the age of 36.

And it doesn't matter that a pitcher's health is often unpredictable (especially after the age of 30), and Scherzer could be a shell of his former self by the time he approaches the final years of his contract.

If that were to happen, the Nationals would be on the losing end and likely forced to eat half of Scherzer's salary in order to unload him to some other team in a desperate trade.

How much tread do you think Bell, 25, will have left on his proverbial tires by the time he reaches the age of 30?

According to an article published by, the average length of an NFL running back's career is 2.57 years.

Based on his number of years in the league (four) and the amount of games he's played (47), Bell is already living on borrowed time for the position he plays. Thankfully for him, he's still very much at the top of his game.

Unfortunately for Bell, he can't max-out his earning potential.

Ever wonder why NFL free-agency very rarely produces true "winners" each February, despite pseudo winners being named by the likes of ESPN every March?

Ever wonder why you don't see fans holding up signs such as "Why (insert iconic player here) why?" every fall, when a mega-superstar who is in his prime comes back as an opposing player?

Ever wonder why entire NFL fan bases don't go nuts, like the Cavaliers fans did when LeBron James made his "decision" in 2010?

It's because the top superstars don't get to change the landscape of the NFL each year, thanks to the aforementioned franchise tag that Bell now must play under this year and...perhaps next year?

If Bell suffers a catastrophic injury in 2017 (an ACL or second MCL would certainly qualify), he definitely wouldn't get slapped with a franchise tag against next year.

In-fact, he would probably become a free-agent. Only problem with that is he'd be considered damaged goods, and surely wouldn't command anywhere near the $14.5 million a second franchise tag would garner.

Therefore, unless the Steelers recent contract offer to Bell guaranteed him $26.5 million (and that seems highly unlikely), can you really blame him for rejecting it and opting to play for the $12.1 million in 2017?

You might resent Bell for that, but he's only looking out for himself.

After all, fans tend to move on when a player's best days are behind him.

And we all know teams always move on.

Le'Veon Bell only has one hand to play when it comes to maximizing his career earnings.

Can you really blame him for going all in?