Hybridization has replaced specialization for NFL skill position players. Simply being good at football has become such a valuable attribute that teams are willing to spend high draft picks on positionless players. Is Jabrill Peppers a linebacker or a safety? Should Christian McCaffrey play running back or slot receiver? Is Haason Reddick better suited at inside linebacker or outside linebacker?
While these blurred lines create nightmare scenarios for offensive and defensive coordinators, the fact that many star players are able to excel at multiple positions has created a divide between agents and front office personnel. The former obviously want to eliminate the procedural binary that comes along with contract negotiations, while the latter would enjoy seeing much of the same.
In 2014, Jimmy Graham challenged the standard assumption of what it means to play a particular position. Fresh off a 1,200-yard, 16-touchdown campaign, Graham was set to become a free agent and presumably the richest tight end in NFL history. Not wanting to lose one of the NFL’s best players, New Orleans slapped the franchise tag on Graham. Graham, realizing that he lined up as a receiver on the majority of his offensive snaps in 2013, argued that he should be tagged as a wide receiver, which would have paid him just over $12 million for the season. Exhibiting a strong sense of frugality, the Saints argued that Graham, who was listed as a tight end on the official depth chart, should be tagged as a tight end, which would have paid him just over $7 million. In a landmark decision, an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the Saints, thereby establishing a firm precedent for any future discussions for hybrid players: you are what your position says you are.
Le’Veon Bell is one of the best hybrids in the NFL. Bell, in addition to being a unanimous top-three running back, is so adept at playing receiver that he could likely play the position on a full-time basis. (He has been debatably the second-best receiver on the Steelers since he was drafted in 2013). For this reason, Bell apparently wants to be paid like a top-tier running back and a no. 2 receiver, which probably explains why he declined Pittsburgh’s reported five-year, $60 million offer.
Before we rush to judgement, it is important to consider that no team in the NFL is likely to pay Bell $15 million per season, no matter how good he is at playing running back and receiver. However, a contract with an AAV of $15 million would make Bell the 37th richest player in the NFL; it would be absurd to argue that there are 36 better football players in the NFL than Le’Veon Bell, and even more foolish to suggest that there are 36 players who are more valuable to their teams than Bell is to the Steelers. When considering that Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler are set to make $15 million and $18 million respectively this season, Bell should be aiming for the stars with his contract demands.
Of course, the quarterback comparison isn’t exactly fair, because marketplace economics tells us very clearly what a quarterback is worth—or, more accurately, what they should be paid. The same is true for receivers, outside linebackers, offensive tackles, cornerbacks and tight ends. The problem for Bell is that he outperformed the running back baseline by such a considerable margin that he essentially re-wrote the rulebook for his position. LeSean McCoy, who is an excellent, multitalented running back, will make $8 million this season, making him the highest-paid running back in the NFL who is playing under a long-term contract. Bell is obviously worth more than $8 million, but the question is determining “how” much more. When Antonio Brown and the Steelers sat down to negotiate a new contract last season, both sides had a definitive starting point: elite receivers make at least $15 million per season. From there it just became a matter of settling on the specifics.
Pittsburgh’s reported offer was exceedingly generous (if the $12 million AAV that’s been reported is accurate, that’s higher than I thought the team would go), but Bell and his agent still felt it wasn’t befitting of Bell’s skillset. Truthfully, they were probably right. Bell is an exceptional runner who is also able to directly influence the outcomes of games as a blocker and as a receiver. In my opinion, he is the best all-around offensive player that the league has seen since LaDainian Tomlinson. He absolutely deserves $14 million or $15 million or whatever it was that he was demanding.
But he won’t get it. Bell is a hybrid everywhere but the negotiating table, where he will be strictly defined by his position. If he remains steadfast in his desire to be compensated for playing two positions, there is little chance that his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers will extend beyond this season.